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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The Halvah “Problem”

I’ve made no secret of my love of halvah, and how Lilli, who seems to be vying to at least place at the picky toddler championship, loves to munch on it, too. This is a known fact in my family, and so when everyone assembled for Beatrix’s baby naming, I found myself with a curious problem: a surplus of halvah.

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She arrived, and so did a whole a mess of halvah

First, my dad brought two huge chunks of it, which he purchased at the shuk in Jerusalem. (He also brings those candied pecans, possibly my most favorite thing in the entire world. The only place I’ve located them stateside that actually taste like the Israeli version is at Russ & Daughters on the Lower East Side. A store that sells smoked fish and those pecans is my heaven on earth.)

Then my mom came to town with a bagful of food for our first week home from the hospital: salmon, pesto, asparagus, and an enormous brisket. And she brought halvah as a special treat for Lilli and me. Finally, I rescued some from Sara’s kitchen, as no one in her house enjoyed it. (Sylvie’s comment: “I’m sorry, but I don’t understand that sentence.”)

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Lilli practicing “gentle”

As delighted as I am that my parents clearly read my blog and have both gotten the memo about halvah, I have about three pounds of it in my kitchen right now. A fridge full of vegetables actually provided the answer for what to do about my halvah dilemma. I was on the hunt for something new to do with broccoli and was flipping through Ottolenghi’s latest, Plenty More, the sequel to his extraordinary vegetable bible, Plenty. And there they were: a recipe for halvah and walnut cake, followed by a recipe for halvah ice cream. (For those wondering what I did with the broccoli, I made Heidi Swanson’s broccoli gribeche salad from Super Natural Every Day.)

So Lilli and I grabbed our aprons — or kitchen smocks, as she calls them — and got to work on the ice cream. The cake will have to wait because it’s too darn hot to turn the oven to 400F. The result was excellent if you’re into halvah and ice cream — so, pretty much everyone.

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Lilli in her “kitchen smock”

This is a traditional custard-based ice cream, with heated eggs, making it safe for pregnant women. You drizzle in tahini, then add halvah at the very end of the churn. I’m including the directions for those without an ice cream maker, but honestly, do what we did five years ago, and buy one off of Craig’s List for $25. This reminds me that I was sent a no-churn ice cream cookbook which I need to take for a spin. Will report back soon.

Three small things: I couldn’t find my jar of vanilla beans, purchased for cheap in the gourmet food section at Home Goods, so I used a teaspoon of extract, as a classmate/baker once taught me to do. Two: I also didn’t have  superfine sugar, so I made some by whirling regular white sugar in the food processor. Three: place the container you’re going to freeze the ice cream in before you get going, because Ottolenghi only mentions this as you finish up the churning.

The full recipe is actually for halvah ice cream with chocolate sauce and roasted peanuts. Ottolenghi likens it to a “luxurious Snickers ice cream: sweet, nutty, and comforting. The chocolate can mask the halvah flavor a little, so better not drench it with sauce; just drizzle lightly.” Since the point here is halvah, we skipped the chocolate sauce – for now.

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I think Lilli is the spitting image of me as a little girl in this picture, and not because she’s chowing down on halvah ice cream

Halvah Ice Cream with Chocolate Sauce and Roasted Peanuts from Plenty More by Yotam Ottolenghi

Ingredients

1 cup heavy cream

1 1/2 cups/350 ml whole milk

1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise, seeds scraped – alternatively, 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 egg yolks

Scant 3 1/2 tsp/40g superfine sugar

2 tbsp/30 g tahini paste

3 1/2 oz/100 g halvah, cut into 1/4-inch/5-mm dice

Scant 1/2 cup/60 g salted roasted peanuts, coarsely chopped (store bought are best)

1tsp black sesame seeds (or white, if available)

Chocolate sauce

2/3 cup/150 ml heavy cream

Scant 3 oz/80 g dark chocolate (70 percent cacao), finely chopped

1/2 tsp brandy

Directions

Heat the cream, milk, and vanilla bean and seeds (or teaspoon vanilla) in a saucepan over medium heat until the mixture just comes to a boil. Remove from heat.

In a bowl, whisk the egg yolks and sugar until combined. Use a ladle to spoon a little of the hot cream mixture into the egg mixture, whisking the whole time. Continue with more cream mixture until it is all incorporated. Return to the saucepan and place over medium heat. Stir with a wooden spoon continuously for 10 minutes, until the sauce thickens to a light custard consistency. Remove from the heat and whisk in the tahini. Leave to cool for 20 minutes, then remove the vanilla bean pods if using.

Pour the custard into an ice cream machine and churn for about 35 minutes, or according to the manufacturer’s instructions (for my machine it’s about 20 minutes) until semifrozen but creamy.

Alternatively, transfer it to a freeze-proof container and place in the freezer for 4 to 5 hours, removing it every 30 to 45 minutes and beating it vigorously with a spatula or whisk to break up the frozen areas. Stir in the halvah halfway through freezing.

Remove from the machine and stir in the halvah pieces. Place in a prefrozen container and freeze. Remove from the freezer 10 minutes before serving to let it soften.

Make the chocolate sauce just before serving. Place the cream in a small saucepan over medium heat and bring to a gentle boil. Immediately pour this over the chocolate and stir until soft and uniform. Stir in the brandy. Divide the ice cream among bowls and drizzle some warm sauce over the top. Sprinkle with peanuts and sesame seeds and serve immediately.

A Feast for the Eyes

Like clockwork, it’s practically Sukkot and I have a butternut squash recipe from Aunt Sydney and my Cousin Mark for you. I know some of you served her butternut squash, leeks and grapes dish from last Sukkot every week until the marketplace ran out of squash. I hope you’ll like this butternut squash hummus recipe just as much.

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I first had this hummus at a brunch Aunt Sydney hosted when we were all in town for my cousin Caleb’s bar mitzvah. (You know, the weekend when I had that salted chocolate rye cookie.) Cousin Mark snapped a photo of the brunch which might be the most beautiful photo of the most beautiful brunch that ever was: Roasted salmon, tomato tart, homemade grape leaves, rice salad, carrot salad, red pepper and eggplant caviar, this hummus. Just a magnificent spread.

In addition to being an excellent photographer (and a general technology wiz), Cousin Mark is also the source of this recipe. You see, he serves as vice president of the Macular Degeneration Foundation. Macular degeneration affects the central vision and is the leading cause of legal blindness in people over 55 years old in the Western World. In the United States alone it affects ten million people. This year the foundation put together a cookbook of recipes for healthy vision. Its contributors include Lidia Bastianich, Ina Garten, Jacques Pepin and Alice Waters. So, yeah, if you were on the fence about the cookbook, it’s time to hop on over.

When I checked in with Mark earlier today to make sure it was OK to talk about the cookbook, he said it was fine and recommended the butternut squash hummus. “How did you know that was the recipe I wanted to talk about?” I asked him. “Because if I were Molly that would be the one I’d want to share. Also, that’s the one I would make if someone handed me the book.”

The book is on presale now but won’t be shipped until February. I’ll be back to share more recipes from it.

This recipe was a breeze to put together. I actually kicked up the oven from 350F to 450F because that’s just how I roll when I roast things. I’m using the rest of the squash tomorrow night in the butternut squash Thai curry. Because Thai food.

Roasted Butternut Squash Hummus from Eat Right for Your Sight

Ingredients

1 small butternut squash, peeled and seeded and cut into 2-inch chunks (about 2 cups)

1 Tablespoon plus 2 Tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 15-ounce can chickpeas, drained

¼ cup tahini

3 Tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

¼ teaspoon ground coriander

½ teaspoon ground cumin

1 Tablespoon freshly chopped cilantro

3 garlic cloves, minced

1 teaspoon hot sauce

½ teaspoon sea salt

Freshly ground black pepper

1/8 teaspoon cayenne, more for serving

Directions

Preheat over to 450 degrees. Toss the squash with 1 Tablespoon of olive oil, place on a baking sheet and roast until the squash is tender, about 25 minutes. Set aside to cool.

In a food processor, pulse the chickpeas until coarsely chopped, then add the cooked squash, tahini, lemon juice, coriander, cumin, cilantro, garlic, hot sauce, salt and pepper; process until smooth. To serve, ladle mixture into bowls and drizzle with the remaining 2 Tablespoons of olive oil and dust with cayenne.

Makes 3 cups

The Fourth Quarter

My father, who is originally from London and who now lives in Jerusalem, was once given advice on how to act more American: start drinking coffee instead of tea and watch the Celtics. Granted, this was 30 years ago, when I was little and the Big Three were Bird, McHale and Parish. Even though the coffee suggestion was a bit ludicrous, watching the Celtics seemed like sound advice, and I’ve been a Celtics fan my whole life.

Sure, I’m sad the season is over, but if you told me in January that it would have lasted until the fourth quarter of Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals, well, I wouldn’t have believed it. I don’t think anyone believed in the Celtics more than Doc Rivers, and I’m so happy he knew we were all wrong.

We hosted nearly every game in this post-season, and I always had something out for our guests to enjoy. Man cannot live on nachos alone, and truthfully, I’m much more likely to slap together a Mediterranean mezzes platter than to order a pizza. And so this eggplant dip found its way onto a platter last week.

I wonder what Ottolenghi, an Israeli now living in London, would have to say about his eggplant dip being eaten with gusto in front of such a uniquely American sporting event, but I won’t wonder too long. There’s dip to eat, people!

This might have been the easiest thing I’ve ever done to an eggplant. The day before, I placed it, whole, on a foil-coated pan, coated it with oil and roasted it for 3 hours, or until it turned mushy and caved in on itself. Once the foil had cooled off enough to handle, I folded it around the eggplant, dropped it in a bowl, and put that in the fridge overnight. The next day, I scraped the meat from the blackened, blistered skin, and made this dip in less than seven minutes.

Sure, our basketball season is over for now, but with about 17 hours of Euro 2012 on the DVR and the Olympics coming next month, I have no doubt this dip will be made again and again.

Burnt Eggplant with Tahini from Yotam Ottolenghi’s Plenty

Ingredients

1 large eggplant

1/3 cup tahini paste

¼ cup water

2 teaspoons pomegranate molasses

1 Tablespoon lemon juice

1 garlic clove, crushed

3 Tablespoons chopped parsley

Salt and pepper

A little olive oil to finish

Directions

First, burn the eggplant. (I was very lazy with mine and simply roasted the eggplant in a 400 degree oven for about 3 hours, keeping a close eye on it after the second hour.) Ottolenghi suggests (and I fully support) lining the area around the stove burners with foil to protect them, and starting the eggplants on the stovetop by putting the eggplant directly on two moderate flames and roasting for 12 to 15 minutes, turning frequently with metal tongs, until the flesh is soft and smoky and the skin is burnt all over. Keep an eye on them the whole time so they don’t catch fire. For an electric stove, pierce the eggplant with a sharp knife in a few places. Put them foil-lined tray and place directly under a hot broiler for 1 hour, turning them a few times. The eggplants need to deflate completely and their skin should burn and break.

When cool enough to handle, scoop out the flesh into a colander, avoiding blackened skin. Leave to drain for at least 30 minutes.

Chop the eggplant flesh roughly and transfer to a medium mixing bowl. Add the tahini, water, pomegranate molasses, lemon juice, garlic, parsley and some salt and pepper; mix well with a whisk. Taste and adjust the season, adding more garlic, lemon juice or molasses if needed. You want the salad to have a robust sour/slightly sweet flavor.

I served the eggplant with lots of cut up crunchy vegetables and triangles of whole wheat pita. Ottolenghi suggests sprinkling fresh pomegranate seeds on it and tossing it with sliced mini cucumbers and cherry tomatoes and making it more of a salad. It’s up to you, really.

Sesame Street

This past Rosh Hashana, with me in mind, my mother picked up a container of halvah from the new Turkish market near her house. The sweet sesame candy was studded with green pistachios the same color as its plastic lid. She left it on the island counter in the kitchen, which my uncle and I took as the go-ahead to stand there, spoons in hand, and dig away at the candy. We passed it back and forth like we were college students sharing some sort of contraband. My mom offered the two of us – her older brother and her youngest daughter – knives and plates. Oh no, we said, waving her away, don’t worry about us, we’re all set.

Looking back, it’s probably not a best practice to eat directly from a container, be it halvah, ice cream, or even bags of carrots. But there’s something about the warm taste of sesame that always draws me in. Remember this addictive dressing? I rest my case.

This recipe I have here for a tahini and roasted cauliflower dip is my penitence for shoveling halvah into my mouth for two days straight. A good friend of mine actually requested this recipe to be one of the first that I shared on this blog, but I kept on forgetting to photograph it before I devoured the entire bowlful. I found it in a Food & Wine from a few years back; I tend to kick up the amount of ginger and ground coriander the original recipe calls for. I never seem to have fresh cilantro around when I’ve made it, but I’m sure it tastes very good in it.

This dish doesn’t have to be served right away, and can be stuck in the fridge for a day or two. It warms up beautifully in the microwave. It should be noted that a serving of tahini has something like 18 grams of fat in it. But it’s mixed with cauliflower, so how unhealthy could it be? Don’t answer that.

Roasted Cauliflower and Tahini Spread — Slightly adapted from this recipe

Ingredients
1 head of cauliflower (2 lbs.) halved crosswise and thinly sliced
¼ cup vegetable oil
1 ½ Tablespoons minced fresh ginger (I would say go with a solid two)
1 ½ teaspoons ground coriander (I round up to a hefty two teaspoons)
Kosher salt
3 Tablespoons tahini (sesame) paste
3 Tablespoons fresh lemon juice
Sesame seeds
Pita bread or chips, for serving

Directions

Preheat oven to 450. In a large bowl, toss the cauliflower with the oil, ginger and coriander and season with salt. Spread the cauliflower on a rimmed baking sheet and roast for about 40 minutes, stirring once or twice, until tender and lightly browned in spots. Let cool slightly

Transfer the cauliflower to a food processor. Add the tahini and lemon juice and pulse to a chunky puree; season with salt. Add the cilantro and pulse just until incorporated. Transfer the spread to a bowl and sprinkle with sesame seeds. Serve warm with pita bread or chips.

Hello, Old Friend

I’m a big proponent of the well-stocked pantry, but there is one staple that has until recently been banished from my larder: tamari.

You see, tamari and I have a history. When I was in college, I went on a bit of a tamari bender. The darker, thicker, wheat-free cousin of soy sauce found its way into nearly everything I cooked. Back in the day I was a pretty strict vegetarian, and tamari is as flavorful as a piece of meat or hunk of cheese. It enhances the flavor of everything from rice to tofu to steamed vegetables. Tamari is umami incarnate: a concentrated blast of that “fifth taste” that makes meats and hard cheese so mouth-watering.

It took an intervention from my friend, Ben, to get me off the sauce. After eating endless tamari-spiked dishes from my kitchen, Ben began to comment on the tamari addiction. Considering that Ben is finishing up a Psy.D. in counseling, I am glad I took his observations seriously. Under Ben’s watchful eye, I finished up my last bottle and went cold turkey. I haven’t had it in the house for about a decade.

All that changed last week. How I came across this recipe is a fine example of social media. I am Facebook friends with my sister’s sister-in-law, Sarah, and a few weeks back, Sarah posted a question about purchasing some vegetables, and her friend, a perfect stranger to me, responded with this recipe.

It looked good. So good, in fact, that I wrote on Sarah’s wall, to her friend, that I was going to steal the recipe. I did not mention the part about posting it to my blog, but her friend encouraged me to do so, telling me it was the best salad dressing. Ever. The secret? My old friend, tamari. So, judging myself a decade older and wiser, it was off the wagon and off to the market.

Tamari, meet Tahini

And let me tell you, WOW, this dressing is fantastic. Rich hasn’t stopped eating salad all weekend long. I think I’ve counted him eating 7 separate servings of salad in a two-day period. Since I have never served Rich tamari before, he was blown away by the smooth, rich flavor of it. He could totally see why I had the addiction; low in calories and animal-free, tamari is pretty darn remarkable. Now I have a fresh bottle of it in the house, and I will work hard to make sure I don’t abuse it.

This is a pantry recipe if I’ve ever seen one. You really should have everything here on hand at all times in the house. I’m not very particular about my tahini brands; I’ve tried maybe 3 or 4, and there’s no one that really jumped out at me or I didn’t like. Don’t be alarmed if you don’t have nutritional yeast on hand, most people don’t, but it’s good idea to have a hunk of parmesan hang out in the fridge to top off pastas, risottos or in this case, for dressings. You can whisk this altogether in a bowl, but I wanted the smoothness of a blender. Either will work.

Ingredients

2/3 cup good extra virgin olive oil
1/3 cup fresh lemon juice
1/3 cup tahini
1 tablespoon nutritional yeast (or finely grated hard cheese)
1/4 cup tamari
1 tablespoon honey
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1 tablespoon mayonnaise
salt and pepper to taste

Whisk all ingredients in a bowl or blend together in a blender. I served this with some crunchy romaine and crisp discs of cucumbers and radishes, simply because that’s what I had on hand in the fridge. I have a feeling this dressing will work with just about any vegetable, but use a stronger lettuce than say, mesclun.

For now, the leftover dressing is in a jar in the fridge. I’m not sure how long it stays, but I don’t think it’s going to be around for more than couple more days.