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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Just Married

It’s not every day your friends elope. Well, ours did. On Friday.

We should have known something was up when Suzie and JoJo sent us a printed invitation for a Shabbat potluck in the park. Technically, there was no way it could have been a wedding invitation, because observant Jews can’t marry on the Sabbath. (And since Suzie is in rabbinical school, she definitely knows the rules.) Well, they surprised us all and got married at Cambridge City Hall on Friday morning. Our Facebook news feeds announced the good news, and we were all able to enjoy the photos from our desks at work.

For our contribution to the wedding feast, I made beet tzatziki, using a recipe of Ana Sortun’s (of Oleanna and Sofra Bakery). There’s something about beets that makes me think romance: the deep pink color, their sweet earthy flavor. I used an entire bunch for the recipe, and their prep couldn’t be easier. Trim the stems if it’s a whole beet, wrap each individually in foil, place them on a baking sheet (this protects your oven from beet drippings) and toss them into a preheated 450 degree oven for about an hour. I say an hour because there’s no hard and fast rule for a beet; you’ll know they’re done when a sharp knife slides easily into the root. When cool enough to handle, rub the skins off with a paper towel or clean kitchen towel if you’re not scared about staining one. (I personally am.) Grate the beets using the large holes of a box grater.

And don’t toss those stems and leaves! They are a fantastic dish unto themselves; think of them like a leafy green, like a Swiss chard. Sauté them up in some olive oil and chopped garlic for another tasty dish.

Beet Tzatziki from Spice: Flavors of the Eastern Mediterranean by Ana Sortun

Ingredients

1 cup cooked, shredded beets

1 teaspoon finely chopped garlic (about 1 clove)

2 teaspoons freshly squeezed lemon juice (about ¼ lemon)

1 teaspoon salt

1 ½ cups whole-milk plain yogurt (I actually used a low-fat Greek yogurt and no one knew the difference)

1 Tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

Black pepper to taste

1 Tablespoon chopped fresh dill

Directions

  1. Place the garlic into a medium mixing bowl with the lemon juice and salt. Let it stand for about 10 minutes. This takes some of the heat out of the raw garlic.
  2. Stir in the yogurt, olive oil and black pepper.
  3. Fold in the shredded beets and dill, and re-season with salt and pepper to taste if necessary. Serve the beets cold or at room temperature.

The Georgian Feast

Rich lost his kitchen privileges. The ban was imposed after I came home to a flooded kitchen last Thursday. At first, I wasn’t sure where it was coming from, but soon enough it became clear that the leak was coming from a broken garbage disposal. I can only assume the culprit was the once-lost pestle (as in mortar and), discovered by Rich when it was chewed up by the garbage disposal the previous week. Good news: I now have a new garbage disposal; thanks, Chief Parr! Bad news: I still have a mortar minus a pestle.

Fast forward to Tuesday night, when I attended a Georgian Feast. No, it was not an evening of peaches and pecans, but a dinner and lecture about the Republic of Georgia, which I learned is really a crossroads between Eastern Europe and Western Asia. It was one of several seminars in food, wine and the arts my school is offering this semester, and for which I used my student discount to its full advantage. The lecturer was Darra Goldstein, professor of Russian at Williams College and author of The Vegetarian Hearth, from which the terrific lentils and leeks recipe comes. But most importantly, Dr. Goldstein is the founder and editor-in-chief of the phenomenal scholarly food magazine Gastronomica, which was recently awarded Best Food Magazine of 2010 at the Gourmand Awards.

According to one Georgian legend, God took a supper break while creating the world. He became so involved with his meal that he inadvertently tripped over the high peaks of the Caucasus, spilling his food onto the land below. The land blessed by Heaven’s table scraps was Georgia.

This feast was the second of a two-night event. The previous night was a lecture about sustainable caviar, which, according to one of the women at my table, also involved six separate shots of vodka. Our outstanding dinner, which was prepared by the students in the culinary arts program, also involved alcohol. Keith Johnsen of Daqopa Brands flew in from Washington State to serve us six wines, three white and three red. Actually, I may have enjoyed more than my six. When the slender, young African American man wearing a dark suit and gold bow tie sat down at my table, I leaned over and asked “is it safe to assume you won’t be drinking your wine this evening?” He smiled and confirmed my guess. “I know all about food restrictions, I grew up kosher. I completely understand. I also wrote a 20 page paper last semester analyzing the show Man vs. Food and the perpetuation of food waste in American culture. Religiously speaking, it would be an affront to God to have that wine poured down the drain.” He laughed and passed me his wine.

And the feast itself? We started with khachapuri, a buttery bread full of salty cheese, which we enjoyed while Goldstein demonstrated the preparation of in the front of the room. Tabaka, flattened chicken traditionally eaten with one’s hands to get every bit of meat, was served with niortskali, a garlic sauce, drizzled on top. On the side were mtsvane lobios borani, spiced green beans with a garlicky yogurt dressing, and charkhlis, a beet puree full of coriander and walnuts. For dessert, we had purple pelamushi, grape juice and cornmeal squares, and fresh fruit. All the recipes can be found in Goldstein’s The Georgian Feast, winner of the 1994 Julia Child Book of the Year Award, which all attendees received.

We drank a 2001 Brut Vintage Reserve Bagrationi, a 2007 Mildiani Katstieli, a 2008 Pheasant’s Tears Rkatsiteli, a 2007 Saperavi Kondoli Vineyards, a 2006 Mukazani Teliani Valley and a 2009 Khvanchkara Racha. Were I more sophisticated (and had I been more sober) I would be able to tell you which we had with each course. My favorite was the Pheasant’s Tears, which was very sweet and honey-colored.

The green beans were so splendid that I actually opened the book to page 153 so I could read the recipe at the table. I happened to have both yogurt and green beans in the house this week, so I got very excited. And then I came to the line where I was supposed to use my mortar and pestle to pound my clove of garlic with salt to a paste. “Argh!,” I shrieked, possibly a little too loud for the room. (I blame it on the Pheasant’s Tears. I’m a sympathetic crier.)

I did make these green beans tonight, and tried to create the same effect by mincing my garlic with salt into a paste on a cutting board. It took quite a few minutes to do, and would have been a breeze with a mortar and pestle. This dish was so delicious, I think Rich will be replacing mine sometime this weekend.

Green Beans with Yogurt (Mtsvane Lobios Borani)

From The Georgian Feast by Darra Goldstein

Goldstein writes, “Borani refers to a dish of boiled vegetables to which yogurt is added; an elaborate version calls for the addition of fried chicken as well. Georgian borani is similar to the Persian borani-e or Indian boorani, all legacies of Mongol influence.”

Serves 4 to 6.

Ingredients

1 pound green beans, trimmed

1 onion, peeled and minced

6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) butter

1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

Pinch of ground cloves

Freshly ground black pepper

1 small garlic clove, peeled and roughly chopped

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 cup plain yogurt

1/4 cup ice water

1/2 cup chopped mixed fresh herbs (basil, tarragon, cilantro, parsley, dill, summer savory) — I actually only used tarragon tonight, and it was fantastic. Georgian food is full of cilantro, so if you want to be the most authentic, that’s the way to go.

1 tablespoon chopped fresh mint (optional)

In a large pot of boiling water, parboil the beans for 4 to 5 minutes, until crisp-tender. Meanwhile, in a large frying pan, saute the onion in 4 tablespoons of butter until soft.

Drain the beans and chop coarsely (each bean should be in 2 to 3 pieces). Add the beans to the onion along with the remaining 2 tablespoons butter. Stir in the cinnamon, cloves and pepper. Cook, covered, for 10 to 15 minutes, until the beans are very soft.

In a mortar and pestle, pound the garlic with salt to a paste. Whip the yogurt with the ice water and add it to the pounded garlic.

Stir the fresh herbs into the beans and cook for 1 minute more, then turn out onto a plate. Pour the yogurt over the beans and garnish with fresh mint, if desired.

I ended up drizzling the yogurt sauce on everything on my dinner plate tonight, the cabbage and cous cous. I think you’ll be wanting to do the same.