The Mighty Eggplant

 

Israeli food is having a moment. There, yes, but also here. There is (or was) James Beard award winner, Shaya, in New Orleans, the Tatte empire in Boston, not to mention Einat Admony in New York City. And of course, across the pond, Ottolenghi. But maybe the biggest name in American-Israeli food right now is Philadelphia’s Michael Solomonov. Rich and I have been following him since we went to Zahav back in 2010. When we went to Philadelphia for vacation this summer, we ate at his hummus bar Dizengoff with Sylvie and Miriam and Leo, after watching the eclipse at the Franklin Institute. And we brought pretty much everything on the Federal Donuts’ menu to my dear friend Carly’s in the Philly suburbs. (Rich lost his mind when he discovered that she lives three blocks from Tired Hands brewery.)

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So when I read that Solomonov had a documentary about Israeli cuisine on Netflix, it zoomed to the top of our watch list. (Yes, even over the new season of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend; don’t worry, we’re caught up.) But the documentary, In Search of Israeli Food, is Solomonov’s very personal tour of Israeli cuisine. He visits some of the big chefs, farmers, and producers in Israeli food now. It also had a fair amount about the history of Israeli food, which we found fascinating.

One of the debates among the talking heads near the beginning of the movie was, is there even such a thing as an Israeli cuisine? The country, after all, is only 65 years old, and over that time it’s been melding together the existing cuisines of the region with everything that the Jewish diaspora brought back as they migrated there: from Sephardi nations like Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Yemen to Ashkenazi Central and Eastern Europe.

The film does a good job of covering all these different strands, although we detected a preference for super-local approach of the chefs featured early in the documentary. But having eaten at Solomonov’s restaurants, it was very interesting to see the original influences that he is referring back to.

There’s a great scene where Solomonov visits an established Israeli chef at home, who starts charring an eggplant on a burner almost as soon they come into his kitchen. “It seems like so many Israeli recipes start with a burnt eggplant,” Solomonov quips.

Which brings us to this week’s recipe: I think I have finally created the creamy baba ganoush of my dreams, I think you still know what I’m talking about. Smoky, creamy, thick with tahini, it’s all there, and it’s exciting for me considering I’m still not happy with my hummus. The source is Gil Marks, considered by many to be the godfather of the history of Jewish cooking. When we lived in Boston, Marks gave a lecture at our synagogue and I missed it. Not more than a year later he passed away. One of my biggest regrets is not going to hear him talk.

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My favorite baba of all time was sold at a place at 69th and Jewel in Queens, and this is as close as I’ve come in my home kitchen to making it. It’s a far cry from when I tried making it in my parents’ kitchen when I was 12 years old. I added 6 heads of garlic, rather than 6 cloves.

This version takes a while, but nearly all of it is hands-off time. You have to roast the eggplants for a good chunk of time in a hot, hot oven, and then you have to drain the flesh in a colander for another half hour. I tend to steam roast some beets while I do the eggplant. That way I feel accomplished while having done very little.

About this recipe: Marks explains the Indian eggplant was introduced the Middle East by the Persians about 4th Century CE. It then traveled through Europe into Russia and Ukraine. Versions of this eggplant salad also have made their way into ikra (vegetable caviar in the Baltics), salata batinjan and caviar d’aubergines (eggplant cavier) in the Middle East. They are common from India to Morocco. The most famous variation is the Lebanese baba ghanouj – baba is the Arabic word for “Father” as well as a term of endearment; ghanouj means “indulged.” (And who isn’t thinking about Skinny Legs and All right now?) I borrow the tahini from this version and add it to the Israeli version, and it makes me so happy.

We’re still getting eggplants in our weekly CSA and I can’t stop making this dish. Ours are small, so I usually roast four at a time, rather than the two that Marks calls for. I suggest making this, finding some good pita, and snacking on it while you watch the Solomonov documentary.

Israeli Eggplant Spread (Salat Chatzilim) from Gil Marks’ Olive Trees and Honey: A Treasury of Vegetarian Recipes from Jewish Communities Around the World

Ingredients

2 eggplants

About ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil

¼ cup chopped fresh parsley

3 to 4 garlic cloves

2 to 4 Tablespoons tahini

1 ¼ teaspoons table salt or 2 teaspoons kosher salt

Ground black pepper to taste

Directions

Roast the eggplant by placing them on a baking sheet and slide them into a preheated 400F oven until very tender, about 50 minutes. Let stand long enough so that you can handle. Peel the eggplant, being careful not to leave any skin. Place in a colander and let drain for about 30 minutes. Coarsely chop on a cutting board; do not puree.

Using the tip of a heavy knife or with a mortar and pestle, mash the garlic and salt into a paste. In a medium bowl combine all the ingredients. Let stand at room temperature to allow the flavors to meld, or refrigerate for up to 3 days. Serve at room temperature or slightly chilled.

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Spare No Detail

If you’re anything like me when it comes to food, and you probably are if you’re reading this blog, then you love a good meal recap. What they served at Prince William and Kate Middleton’s wedding? Tell me more! You just had an incredible meal at a farm-to-table spot in Nashville? Spare no detail, please. With that in mind, I hope you will appreciate hearing about the meals we had over Rosh Hashanah and Sukkot. Perhaps they will inspire your own menus. This is going to take a while, and there’s no formal recipe at the end, but I do describe how I made some of the dishes as I go.

First Night of Rosh Hashanah

The first night of Rosh Hashanah was just us four, so I kept the meal small. This was also because I was putting so much effort into the second night’s meal. But for first night, I took the caramelized onions I’d made in the crock pot and made them into a caramelized onion and blue cheese whole wheat tart. The butter from the crust dripped onto the floor of the oven, setting off the fire alarm. I roasted an acorn squash from the CSA with olive oil, salt, pepper and brown sugar, which dripped off the squash and set off the fire alarm when it wasn’t going off because of the tart. Those two, along with a simple salad, is how we started the new year. (Shout out to Rich who oversaw the oven’s self-cleaning overnight to get ready for the main event.)

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Second Night of Rosh Hashanah

For second night, we hosted my parents, my friend Dan, and some friends in town, whom I put in charge of the first fruit. They did a stellar job, bringing rambutan (a cousin of the lychee) and a durian fruit. (For better or worse, the durian was frozen and we didn’t get a chance to open it, but we will later this month. I’m so excited!)

For dinner we had, roughly in order:

Dates stuffed with Goat Cheese. Lilli is 100% completely in charge of this dish. She’s become very adept at using a butter knife to pit the dates.

Potato leek soup, with a dollop of crème fraiche. If you’re going to gild the lily one night of the year, it might as well be Rosh Hashanah.

Baked brie peach chutney in puff pastry. The same friend who brought the wacky fruit had a few weeks earlier collected peaches from her neighbor’s yard, which I made into peach chutney. I sliced off the top of a round of Camembert cheese, piled a few tablespoons of the chutney on top, wrapped it in puff pastry, applied an egg wash and baked it at 400F for 20 minutes — without setting off the smoke alarm! It was marvelous with the round challah from Small Oven Bakery.

Pickled cherry tomatoes. From a new cookbook by Leah Koenig I borrowed from the library that week.

A salad of mesclun, fresh figs, red grapes, blue cheese and candied pecans. I sautéed the grapes with a sprig of fresh rosemary and salt and made a sweet balsamic dressing I made with the local honey we dipped our apples in.

Delicata squash with thyme bread crumbs. Also from Leah Koenig.

Caprese salad with a balsamic reduction.

Farro with honeyed apples. Definitely worth cooking the farro in sweet apple cider.

Baked haddock. Don’t ever overlook Old Bay spice; there are entire states whose cuisines are based on it. I threw together a quick and easy tartar sauce with relish, mayonnaise, kosher salt and fresh lemon. My parents requested a non-dairy dressing to bring to their Shabbat dinner the following night, so I turned the tartar sauce into Thousand Island by adding 2 tablespoons ketchup, a teaspoon white vinegar; I forgot the half minced white onion, but I think it was fine.

Roasted mushrooms. I served these specifically because I thought Bea would eat them. She did!

Roasted carrots. Super low key, just coconut oil, kosher salt and pepper.

Dessert was plum cake, apple and walnut bars, and honey cake.

Special shout out to Thuy, who brought the spectacular new fruits and cleared the table and washed every dish in a matter of 20 minutes. You’re welcome back any time!

Sukkot

First night Sukkot was small, just us four and my parents. Still, the meal is still worth talking about. We had:

Carrot ginger soup

Baba ganoush (more to come on this)

Slow-roasted plum tomatoes. These looked like canoes when I took them out of the oven, so I filled with dollops of ricotta and chives.

Leek-artichoke tarts topped with blue and parmesan cheeses.

Radish and tonnato

Kale salad with roasted delicata squash and pomegranate

Peanut butter mousse ganache pie (recipe to come, soon!)

And ice cream, courtesy of Oma and Zayde.

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I’ll be following up with full recipes for the baba and peanut butter pie. But now I’m going to take a break. Just recapping all that cooking has made me tired. Happy new year, everyone!

A Sukkah of One’s Own

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I’m teaching Hebrew School this year at the Reform Temple in town, where we go to Tot Shabbat every month. Last week we had our Open House where I met seven families whose children, ages Pre-K through second grade, will be in my class this year. I somehow convinced the rabbi we could definitely handle making a really easy plum cake recipe – with each family. We ended up making 10!

One of the bonuses to teaching Hebrew School, I mean, on top of making my parents unbelievably proud, is to fulfill my dream of having a sukkah.  (Daycare costs are KILLING us, so I used this extra income to purchase a sukkah kit we found online.) Well, on Sunday we hosted a sukkah building and decorating party for our friends and neighbors. It kind of reminded me of the Christmas tree decorating party I held back in Boston, mostly for my Jewish friends who’d always wanted to decorate a tree.

 

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Rich filled a cooler with cider, beer and seltzer, and I set up a craft project: build your own sukkah out of cream cheese, graham crackers and pretzel rods. I covered a table in arts and crafts projects: sequins, pre-cut paper for a colorful chain, popsicle sticks, beads, fishing line, pipe cleaners, paint, brushes, stickers. Just a ton of materials, much of which ended up in the grass courtesy of Beatrix.

 

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I filled a second table with tons of baked goods: blondies, whole wheat chocolate chip cookies, apricot bars with an oat and whole wheat crust, one of the plum cakes from last week (defrosted that morning). I also made chive and cheddar scones because Sylvie thought I needed something savory in the mix. I adapted a sweet scone recipe, using 1 Tablespoon of sugar instead of 3, and sprinkled shredded cheese and chives, cut with kitchen shears, when it called for currants to be added.

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So, yes, that’s a lot. In fact, one of the reasons I didn’t post last week was I was too busy baking! But the recipe I’m most excited to share with you are the salted fudge brownies. I realized as I made them last week I don’t have a brownie recipe in my collection. But I think these are going to be my go-to brownies because they’re wicked easy to make, and quite tasty.

They’re from Desserts, from the editors and writers of Food & Wine which, as you all know, is my favorite of the food magazines. (Moment of silence for Lucky Peach, please.) The first thing I cooked from the book is a recipe that both Rich and I singled out: a chocolate chip cookie for one. It was terrific, took five minutes to put together, and cooked up nicely in my toaster oven. I’ve bookmarked the salted caramel pie, but I need to find the time to cook the sweetened condensed milk. And I’m going to need a few hours to put together the pumpkin pie bars.

One feature about the cookbook I’m really appreciating is that it tells you an estimate of how long a recipe is going to take to put together, bake and also cooling down time. Very helpful as I plan projects with the girls.

These brownies, however, are great because they were so easy to put together. It only took a few minutes, and it’s all done in one pot, so there’s very little to clean up. You start by melting baker’s chocolate and two sticks of butter in a pot. Once everything has melted together, you add the rest of your standard brownie ingredients, stir it up, then put it in a brownie pan that’s been covered in foil and then buttered. Couldn’t be easier. It is worth mentioning that I only had 1 ounce of baker’s chocolate and used chocolate chips for the other ounce, so I cut down the sugar from 2 cups to one. It didn’t seem to make a difference, and I’m sure they’re even better if you follow the recipe.

Salted Fudge Brownies from Desserts by Food and Wine

Ingredients

1 ½ sticks unsalted butter, plus more for greasing

2 oz. unsweetened chocolate, finely chopped

¼ cup plus 2 Tbs. unsweetened cocoa

2 cups sugar

3 large eggs

1 ½ tsp. pure vanilla extract

1 cup all-purpose flour

½ tsp. Maldon sea salt

Directions

Preheat oven to 350F. Line a 9-inch square metal cake pan with foil, draping the foil over the edges. Lightly butter the foil.

In a large saucepan, melt the 1 ½ sticks of butter with the unsweetened chocolate over very low heat, stirring occasionally. Remove from the heat. Whisking them in 1 at a time until thoroughly incorporated, add the cocoa, sugar, eggs, vanilla and flour. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the surface. Sprinkle the salt evenly over the batter. Using a butter knife, swirl the salt into the batter.

Bake the brownies in the center of the oven for about 35 minutes, until the edges are set but the center is still a bit soft and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out coated with a little of the batter. Let the brownies cool at room temperature in the pan for 1 hour, then refrigerate just until firm, about 1 hour. Lift the brownies from the pan and peel off the foil. Cut the brownies into 16 squares and serve at room temperature.

The brownies can be refrigerated for up to 3 days or frozen for up to a month.