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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A Summer Salad

Last week, after years of careful deliberation, I announced to Rich that my favorite of all berries was the raspberry. The best raspberries of all were the wild ones that grew on the bushes that lined the road to our house in Western Mass. Those bushes are all gone now, replaced with houses, but when I was a little girl my sisters and I would run down the small hill to collect the berries.

For Lilli, strawberries were in the berry lead in early June, but it looks like blueberries have now surged ahead. (Earlier tonight I overheard Rich telling her that she had to eat them one at a time and to stop cramming them into her mouth all at once.) Sometimes I share my raspberries with her, and it’s clear she loves those, too.

cherry herb salad

Longtime readers of this blog would have no idea about my raspberry love, or how much I absolutely adore all summer fruits, for that matter, because I tend to do the minimal amount of preparation to them. (Plums don’t count.) Why bake something, like a peach or cherry, into a pie when it’s already a perfect dessert (or snack, or meal)?

All this changed when I saw this recipe for cherry herb salad. I read the name of the dish long before I had a chance to read the recipe, and my first guess as to what herb it would be was tarragon. It turned out to be a cup of cilantro leaves, and it works. It works well enough that I’m sharing this recipe with you and plan on making it again tomorrow night. Cherries were on crazy sale at Star Market today – I was there this morning AND this evening refilling my supply.

in the kitchen

The recipe calls for a Holland chile pepper which the regular market clearly did not have. I did a bunch of googling and, honestly, use whatever hot pepper you’d prefer. I actually didn’t use the entire pepper in this dish, as I’m a bit of a wimp about spicy things. Although the original recipe claims that the broiling of the pepper takes four minutes, I found it took closer to 10 minutes in the toaster oven, where I also toasted a half cup of walnuts. I clean my cilantro by filling a large bowl of cold water and dropping the herb into it; the sand always sinks to the bottom of the bowl. Today’s bunch of cilantro was especially gritty; I needed to change the water five times tonight. As for prepping the fruit, many years ago Rich bought me a cherry/olive pitter. Money well spent, I say. I buy my pomegranate molasses at the Armenian shops in Watertown. My bet is any Middle Eastern shop in your area would have it, too. It would be right next to the rosewater.

We ate this tonight as a side to our roasted fish and brown rice. You should, too.

Cherry & Herb Salad – This recipe was featured in a May 2013 issue of Saveur within Gabriella Gershenon’s article The Promised Land. It’s credited as a Turkish recipe, but the article is about Israel and the Galilee. I’ve been thinking a lot about Israel lately. I bet many of you reading this are thinking about it, too. 

Ingredients

Up to two red Holland chiles, or chiles of your choosing

1 lb. fresh dark pitted cherries

1 cup cilantro leaves

½ cup walnuts halves, toasted and roughly chopped

3 Tablespoons olive oil

1 ½ Tablespoons pomegranate molasses

1 Tablespoon fresh lemon juice

Kosher salt and black pepper, to taste

Instructions

Heat oven broiler (or toaster oven) to high. Place chiles on a baking sheet; broil, turning as needed, until charred and tender, 4 to 10 minutes, depending on the size of your pepper.

Transfer to a bowl and cover with plastic wrap; let sit five minutes. Discard stems, skin and seeds from chiles; finely chop and transfer to a bowl. (I did this step wearing rubber gloves.)

In a separate bowl whisk together the olive oil, molasses and lemon juice.

Add the cherries, cilantro and walnuts to the bowl of chopped pepper. Pour the dressing into the bowl and toss to combine. Serve chilled or at room temperature.

 

Worth Sharing

I’m not a huge food photo sharer on Facebook. The truth is, there are more photos of my cat on Facebook then there are of meals I’ve enjoyed. (Yes, I’m one of those people that can never get enough photos of cats or people’s children on the Internet. Share a photo of one of those two things, or better yet, together, and you’ll get a “like” from me.)

Tonight I posted a photo of dinner to Facebook with the caption “CSA Shakshuka!” I received a few thumbs up, but also a question as to what shakshuka is. Well, let me tell you about shakshuka.

The first time I’d ever heard of shakshuka was when I lived in Israel. Aleza Eve told me about the dish, a sauce made of peppers and tomatoes with eggs poached on top, and directed me to a spot in the shuk that had the best in town. After classes one afternoon, I found the shop with the famed shakshuka, but found myself drawn to the eggplant salads in the case. (I get very distracted when it comes to eggplant saladschatzeelim, as they say in Israel.) I ate my eggplant in the shade on Mt. Scopus by the Israel Museum, convincing myself I’d get the shakshuka the next time. Well, it turns out there wasn’t a next time, and the only shakshuka I’ve had has been stateside.

I’ve found shakshuka is a great use of the August CSA box which is always full of green peppers and tomatoes. Some people add onions to theirs. I think aleppo would also be nice, maybe a smidge of harissa. I found one hot pepper to be enough for me, but I know others would add at least two more. (And no, this dish is not in the least bit reflux friendly, albeit extremely delicious.) It’s also one of those chameleon dishes that can be served for breakfast, brunch, dinner or anything in between.

Shakshuka

Ingredients

2 green peppers, chopped into 1-inch pieces

1 small hot pepper, chopped into ¼ -inch pieces

5 cloves garlic, slivered

1 Tablespoon olive oil

1 28 oz. can crushed tomatoes, or one box Pomi (Let’s be real: I rarely cook with my fresh tomatoes. Heck, I barely share mine with Rich.)

1 teaspoon freshly ground cumin

1/4 teaspoon turmeric

Two or three hearty pinches of salt

3 eggs

Directions

In a medium skillet, sauté the peppers, garlic, spices and salt in the olive oil. Cook until they soften, about six minutes. Add the tomato. Simmer, stirring occasionally, for about 15 minutes. The sauce should thicken. With the back of a spoon, make three dents in the sauce. Pour the eggs into each of the spots. Cover pan with lid for about four minutes. Some people like yolks that ooze. Others like stiff yolks, which means you should cook the eggs for closer to seven minutes. It’s really up to you.

Serve in low-rimmed bowls with hunks of crusty bread or pita.

It’s What We Do

kosher vegetarian

It must be an August thing, because I’ve been dreaming about eggplant again. A thick purple gem of an aubergine came a few weeks back in my CSA, and I had been tossing around ideas of what I wanted to do with it for days. I knew I wanted it to be a dip perfect for pita — tomatoey, soft with a bit of a shimmer, not too smoky. I also knew I wanted to use the green pepper that came in the same box. But I couldn’t quite put my finger on exactly how I was to execute my vision. I knew that Aleza was coming to town, so I assured the eggplant that its fate would be a lovely one, if it could just hang on a few more days.

In preparation for our visit, we chatted a bit online about my vision, bouncing around flavors from Israel, Persia and Armenia — places that do magical things with eggplant. On a Tuesday morning, Aleza and I hunkered down with slices of leftover blueberry pie in her parents’ kitchen. (Yes, I took a vacation day to cook this eggplant. And I think all mornings should start with slices of leftover blueberry pie.) While digging around the refrigerator, her dad came downstairs and asked us if we needed any help. “Oh no,” we assured him, “we’re all set.” We were just checking to make sure there wasn’t a vegetable we had overlooked who would want to join the eggplant. We ended up taking two smaller eggplants Aleza had picked up at the farmer’s market in Provincetown, to supplement my own.

Although it had been literally a dozen years since Aleza and I cooked and studied together in Israel, it felt just so right to have planned an entire visit around cooking a meal. “It’s what we do,” Aleza summed up to her father.

Eggplant a la Aleza Eve

Ingredients

2 lbs. of eggplant (one very large one will do)

Enough oil to cover a pan

1 1/2 teaspoons whole cumin seeds

1 half white onion, chopped

4 cloves garlic, chopped

1 green pepper, chopped

1 1/2 teaspoons Aleppo pepper

14 oz. can crushed tomato

Salt to taste

Directions

Preheat oven to 450 degrees

We began the eggplant preparation by placing them one at a time directly on top of a burner on the stove for about 10 minutes, turning them about every two minutes so that the entire eggplant would come into contact with the flame. This blistered its skin and started to soften its flesh. Then we tossed it into a very hot preheated oven and roasted it while we prepared the rest of the dish.

As we discussed relationships, politics, writing, religion, music and tattoos, I chopped the onion while Aleza chopped up the green pepper and garlic. We went with whole cumin seeds, which we added to a pan of hot oil, and watched until they jumped and popped. Then we added the onions and a pinch of salt, which we cooked for about 10 minutes, stirring with a wooden spoon every two minutes or so. Next we added the Aleppo pepper, green pepper and garlic, and cooked that altogether for about 15 more minutes.

(I had to run to the grocery store at this point to pick up black beans for a little protein for the corn salad we had decided to serve with the eggplant, so I didn’t actually witness this next part, but will recreate as best I can.)

A good 40 minutes had passed since we’d added the eggplant to the oven, and Aleza could see it was ready by the way it had completely softened and collapsed in on itself. She knew it was really ready by the way the flesh was easily scraped from its skin with a fork, which she then added to the onion-cumin-pepper mixture on the stove. Then she added about half of a 28 oz. can of crushed tomatoes. She was a little worried that she’d added too much, but it was just what I’d had in mind.

We cooked the dish for another 10 minutes or so, making sure all the flavors melded into each other. As we turned off the stove, Aleza drizzled a little red wine vinegar onto the eggplant, to perk it up. After toasting some pita (which I also purchased on my trip to the grocery store) we enjoyed my eggplant vision in its full glory, drizzling olive oil onto the servings on our plate.