Tuesday, August 19, 2014

smoky eggplant dip

smoky eggplant sesame spread

The first weeks in a new apartment are always about comparisons: The living room is smaller; the kid’s room is a little bigger. Our room is narrower and contains only one closet that we must share (uh-oh) but also maybe six inches longer, and in those inches, we no longer routinely stub our toes on our dressers while fumbling around in the morning like the old people we’ve unfairly become. The living room gets less natural light, but for the strangest reason: a massive leafy oak tree outside, something I’ve walked by at the sidewalk level for over five years and never noticed. What is this, Brooklyn or something?

eggplants, getting artsy
putting the fifth burner to use

The kitchen differences are, predictably, the most obsessively analyzed. For example, can we talk about the stove? It has not four but five burners and when I saw them for the first time, I nearly wept. Five burners! This is the small kitchen equivalent of the real estate fantasy of every New Yorker, which is to discover that their apartment contains a whole extra secret room, one that would make their sardine can conditions livable. Do you know what I can do with five burners instead of four? No seriously, do you? Because about five minutes after declaring that it completed me, I realized I had no idea what the purpose of the middle burner is, only that I welcomed it.

charred well

roasted eggplant

Meanwhile, I need to urgently tell you something: Until about five minutes ago, I thought my favorite eggplant dip was called baba ganoush. You know the one, with the tahini and lemon and garlic? It’s not baba ganoush. Though they have in common smoky-cooked eggplant, baba ganoush includes pomegranate molasses, walnuts and tomatoes. This dip? Moutabbal. You seem really smart so you probably already know this. I, however, can’t believe I’m only now learning this for the first time. Why didn’t anyone tell me? Don’t people know that’s rude, like not telling me I have a parsley fleck in my teeth? I sometimes feel like being an adult is a series of moment like this, when you realize that you might, in fact, know very little and it makes you miss the unwavering certainty of world view of the almost-five set.

least favorite kitchen task: stirring separated tahini and nut butters
blended, but hand chopping is better

I never thought I’d be able to pull off good baba ganoush moutabbal at home because I didn’t have a grill, smoker or, heck, even a fire pit over which I could char my eggplant for the perfect smoky roast. And I like my eggplant dips smoky. I found the perfect technique in David Lebovitz‘s latest book, and my favorite one yet, My Paris Kitchen. Can I tell you a secret? I know that we associate Mr. Lebovitz, a Paris dweller, with French cooking, but my favorite things that he makes are the things that he doesn’t have as readily available as he once did in the Bay area and misses terribly. Because he’s also a bit (just a bit!) of a cooking obsessive, I know he’s made kimchi, black-and-white cookies and even moutabbal a zillion times before feeling like they was ready for publication. We all win. He has us cook the eggplant by charring it over a gas flame (or a tiny, beloved fifth burner!) until it’s good and smoky, then roasting it the rest of the way in the oven, for voila! The most incredible cooked eggplant that just about anyone can make at home. From here, tahini, garlic, lemon juice and seasonings bring it together. Make a side tomato-cucumber salad and toast some pita wedges and I dare you to find a most satisfying last-August meal.

moutabbal, not baba ganoush

One year ago: Almond-Crisped Peaches
Two years ago: Baked Orzo with Eggplant and Mozzarella
Three years ago: Red Wine Chocolate Cake
Four years ago: Raspberry Limeade Slushies and Sweet Corn Pancakes
Five years ago: Lobster Rolls and Espresso Chiffon Cake with Fudge Frosting
Six years ago: How to Poach an Egg, Smitten Kitchen-Style and Chocolate Peanut Butter Cake
Seven years ago: Plum-Almond Tartlets

Smoky Eggplant Dip [Moutabbal]
Adapted from David Lebovitz‘s My Paris Kitchen

One of the trickiest things, for me, about nailing down a recipe for this dip, that I called baba ganoush until about five minutes ago, is that everyone has a different idea of what the ideal might taste like. I like a lot of smoky char, tahini and lemon; I try not to overwhelm it with minced garlic, which gets much stronger after a day in the fridge. I like using olive oil to finish it, but not in the dip; I like parsley both mixed in and on top. A scattering of za’atar or toasted sesame seeds and sea salt are wonderful on top. Feel free to use this as a starter recipe and cooking technique, then tweak it to your tastes.

Finally, about the texture. So besotted I am with my new blender, I used it, but distracted, took David’s instructions quite literally to “blend until smooth” on Saturday night and within ten seconds, had made ba-ba-baby food. Which my friends, polite as they were, ate anyway. The next time I made it, photographed here, I just pulsed the mixture in little bursts, but it still became a touch too smooth for my tastes. Want to know what I’ll do from this day forward? Hand chop it. My mother-in-law does this with her eggplant caviar, and it’s the only way ensure that you get a lovely texture that’s not overly pureed.

Makes about 2 cups

2 medium eggplants (about 1 pound each)
2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 teaspoon coarse or kosher salt, or to taste
6 tablespoons tahini (sesame seed paste), well-stirred if a new container
2 garlic cloves, peeled and minced or pressed
Juice of 1 lemon, plus more to taste, if desired
Pinch of cayenne or aleppo pepper
Pinch or two of ground cumin
2 tablespoons well-chopped flat-leaf parsley, divided
Toasted sesame seeds or za’atar for garnish

Heat oven to 375°F. Brush a baking sheet or roasting pan with 1 tablespoon olive oil, and sprinkle with 1 teaspoon salt. Prick eggplants a few times with a fork or tip of a knife. Over a gas flame, grill or under a broiler, evenly char the skin of your eggplants. I like mine quite smoky and like to leave no purple visible. Transfer to a cutting board, and when cool enough to handle, trim off stem and cut lengthwise. Place cut side down on prepared baking sheet and roast for 30 to 35 minutes, until very, very tender when pressed. Let cool to room temperature.

In a blender or food processor: Scrape eggplant flesh from skin and into the work bowl. Add tahini, lemon, cayenne, cumin and 1 tablespoon parsley. Blend in short bursts (pulses) until combined but still coarsely chopped.

By hand: Scrape eggplant flesh from skin and onto a cutting board. Finely chop the eggplant, leaving some bits closer to pea-sized. In a bowl, whisk together tahini, garlic, lemon, cayenne, cumin and half the parsley. Add chopped eggplant and stir to combine.

Both methods: Taste and adjust ingredients if needed. I usually need more salt and lemon.

To serve: Spoon into a bowl and drizzle with remaining tablespoon of olive oil. Scatter with second tablespoon of parsley, and some toasted sesame seeds or za’atar, if desired. Serve with pita wedges.

For a big delicious summer meal, you could serve this with a tomato-cucumber salad, ethereally smooth hummus and pita wedges. If you’d like to be fancy, grilled or pan-roasted lamb chops are wonderful here too. (I use this method, but just season them with salt, pepper, lemon zest and dried oregano these days. I finish them with a squeeze of lemon juice.)


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