Friday, July 25, 2008

Baba Ganouj: Roasted Eggplant Spread

Eggplants are nearly in season in Georgia. Beautiful big purple-black ones are already available at farmers's markets and supermarkets. That for me means baba ganouj.

One of the traditional ‘meze’ or Middle Eastern appetizers, which are served in profusion at the beginning of a meal or even as a meal on their own, baba ganouj often has a smoky flavor from charring the eggplant over fire. This may be an acquired taste for outsiders, but it is considered desirable, and even delightful, in the Middle East. A traditional method that is feasible in the modern kitchen is described here, as is the original method plus a quick and easy microwave method that makes a milder dish.

When serving baba ganouj as an appetizer individually or with a group of other Middle Eastern meze, a dry white wine or a dry rosé would be most likely in the Eastern Mediterranean where these dishes are served (although not by strict Muslims. who do not drink alcohol). Alternatively small glasses of local brandy are served, sometimes laced with anise, such as raki. arrak, or ouzo, and mixed with water into a milky concoction. Frankly, I prefer the wines.

Eggplant and Tahini Appetizer (Baba Ganouj) Tim

1 medium-large eggplant (1-1/2 to 2 pounds)
1 medium-large clove of garlic
3 tablespoons tahini (sesame seed paste; available at health food or Middle Eastern groceries)
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 tablespoons lemon juice (bottled is acceptable)
1/8 teaspoon black pepper
3/8 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
Olive oil and minced parsley for garnish
Pita bread (substitute is sliced baguette) for serving

Rinse the eggplant but do not peel or cut it. Prick it 8 to 10 times with a fork. Roast by one of the three following methods: 1) Toast over a charcoal or gas grill, turning it often with large tongs, until the skin is blackened and blistered and the eggplant has collapsed. Or 2) Place on a cookie sheet and cook it under the broiler, turning frequently, until the skin is blackened and blistered and the eggplant has collapsed. Or 3) Place the eggplant on a microwave-safe plate and roast it at full power, turning it every 3 minutes, until it collapses and the juices run out. This takes about 12 to 15 minutes. Let cool, leaning the pan on a slight angle so that the juices, which are bitter, collect away from the eggplant.

When the eggplant has cooled, discard the bitter juices. With a spoon, scrape all the flesh and seeds out of the skin. After allowing the mixture again to drain its juices, place the pulp in a food processor. Add the garlic, tahini, olive oil, lemon juice, pepper, and 3/8 teaspoon of salt. Puree, pulsing occasionally and scraping down the sides of the container. (Alternatively, the eggplant and garlic can be chopped finely and the baba ganouj mixed using an electric mixer.) Taste the mixture, add lemon juice if not tangy, and add salt to taste. Let the mixture rest for at least half an hour before serving. Taste again, and if needed, add a little salt. Refrigerate if storing for more than an hour (and up to several days), but serve at room temperature.

To serve, spread on a platter or in a shallow bowl, making a large depression in the middle like a bird’s nest. Drizzle the surface generously with olive oil and sprinkle with finely minced parsley. Accompany with pita bread, preferably warmed. Diners tear off pieces of bread and scoop up bits of the appetizer. Alternatively serve the baba ganouj with sliced French bread.

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