Ok, so: eggplant. Such an unappealing name for what, ultimately, is quite the delicious team player. Of course, it’s not helpful at all that many people’s first introduction to the fruit is eggplant Parmesan–decidedly not the vehicle to play up its finer characteristics. So often the dish ends up a heap of wan, bitter, grease-sodden cutlets dribbled with indifferent marinara and glued together with industrial adhesives (er, “mozzarella”), that most eggplant parm qualifies as a UNESCO food crime. We shall, however, overcome.
Before we get any further, though, a note on purchasing eggplants–particularly of the common purple variety. First up, we want heavy, unblemished fruit (they’re actually berries–who knew?!) with taut, shiny skins. All those things being equal, you’ll then want to reach for a boy eggplant–you can sex your eggplant by looking at its belly button. Boy eggplants have small, round belly buttons and fewer seeds, which makes them less bitter, allegedly. Girl eggplants, with their larger, oval belly buttons and abundance of seeds are supposed to be more bitter. I’ve never really been bothered by bitter eggplant, though, so I’m just propagating this fairly tale to irritate anyone uptight enough to huffily draw broader conclusions of produce aisle gender inequity. I figure they deserve it.
Ok, so questionable folk food science aside, the major problem here is fighting against eggplant’s inherent sponginess. No amount of breading, begging, or bleeding (the whole slice/salt/sit/rinse palaver) will change the eggplant’s propensity to suck up whatever liquid you pitch at it. And, while it is possible to do nice things with eggplant and oil, it’s always going to be a lot of mess and effort. Frankly, I’d rather save my kitchen OCD for more rewarding challenges.
SO! We get around this by overwhelming the sponge with forceful application of really wet or really dry heat. In the first, we want to stew the eggplant into, well not oblivion, but close. Lengthy cooking in abundant liquid allows absorption of flavors and a relaxation of texture that’s light years away from the leathery eggplant of cafeteria parm. My friend the Persian Princess produces divine dips that are basically onion, garlic, and eggplant, cooked low and slow into silky submission. Similarly, my ratatouille is–if I do say so myself–a radiant example of eggplant at its hearty, toothsome, yielding best.
In the second, I like to char the bejeebers out of the whole eggplant on the grill stovetop (gas, natch) and then throw them in a hot oven to cook through. There’s enough water already in ‘em, you see, so that holding them over a violent fire doesn’t do a whole lot of damage. Instead, it just kickstarts the cooking process and adds a smoky depth of flavor unobtainable by other means.
Of course, it took me an embarrassingly long time to figure out that I really needed to NOT meticulously clean every fleck of charred skin off the eggplant before pureeing it because (shocker) that’s where the flavor is. But, then, this is why you’re here, yes? I make the mistakes so you don’t have to. Woo!
Yield: ~3 c
2 medium eggplants (~3lb total)
4 tbs sesame tahini
3 cloves garlic
1 tsp cumin
1 1/2 tsp sea salt
1 1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
juice of 1 – 1 1/2 lemons
Wash your eggplants and dry thoroughly. Preheat the oven to 400°F.
While the oven is heating, char the eggplants directly on the grate of a stovetop gas ring. You’ll want to turn the fan on for this; it gets deliciously smoky. Rotate after a couple of minutes on each side as the skin blisters and the juices start to run. Transfer to a baking sheet and bake for 15-20 minutes, or until totally tender and a knife meets no resistance when inserted into the flesh.
Remove eggplant from the oven and set aside to cool enough to handle. While the eggplant’s resting, assemble the rest of the ingredients, juice the lemons, and cut the garlic into very thin, very fine batons or matchsticks. (Thin, skinny pieces catch the processor blades better than a fine mince would, leaving no icky bits of garlic behind.)
Peel the eggplants and let let the flesh drain slightly in your hands. Add the flesh and two or three 1″ pieces of nicely blackened skin to the bowl of a food processor. Add remaining ingredients and blend till smooth. You may want to add a little water to loosen it up, about 1/4 c usually does the trick. Taste and adjust seasoning–particularly the salt, pepper, and lemon. Remember that the garlic’s flavor will become more pronounced as the baba ghanouj sits.
Serve with crackers or warmed pita. Olives, feta, and all that Mediterranean jazz are also nice accompaniments.