baladi eggplant

May 2nd, 2006

I’ve been jonesing for a fire-roasted eggplant with yogurt and tahini sauce ever since I left Israel. This dish appears in myriad variations at almost every trendy Middle Eastern fusion restaurant in greater Tel Aviv. And with good reason–it’s delicious.

Ordinarily, the dish is prepared with a “baladi” eggplant, an Arabic word which roughly translates to “grown the old fashioned way,” according to a greengrocer at the Carmel market in Tel Aviv. Baladi eggplants are smaller than globe eggplants, usually about half the size. They’re squat and appear sort of cloven, with three to five grooves extending from the base towards the top of the fruit. Think of a slightly more squat looking globe eggplant, with multiple–ahem–cleavage. Baladi eggplants are wonderfully delicate and sweet. They’re great sliced and fried in a little olive oil, with a sprinkling of sea salt and freshly ground pepper.

A fire-roasted baladi eggplant is even better–still sweet, yet slightly smoky tasting with a creamy texture. Cow, sheep, or goat milk yogurt adds a cool tanginess to the eggplant, tahini sauce keeps the whole thing grounded and earthy, while pine nuts add texture and, well, a piny flavor that spices everything up. My favorite recipe for this dish is tucked away in the pages of a cooking magazine, lying in a box in storage way over on the other side of the planet. Here’s my attempt at reconstructing it.

Fire-roasted Eggplant with Yogurt and Tahini Sauce

1 medium sized eggplant
coarse sea salt
freshly ground pepper
1 TBSP tahini
1 TBSP freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 TBSP water
1/2 cup good quality cow, sheep, or goat yogurt
toasted pine nuts, lightly crushed or chopped
1 TBSP finely minced fresh herbs such as wild oregano, coriander, or parsley

– Light the smallest gas flame on your stove and rest the eggplant directly on the grate. If you don’t have a gas stove, use a barbecue or hibachi outdoors.

– As the eggplant darkens and starts to smell roasted, you’ll want to turn it over. Keep an eye (and a nostril) on it. If you notice large patches of still purple eggplant skin, turn the uncooked area to the flame.

– While the eggplant is roasting, mix the yogurt until it’s creamy. Try to whisk out the lumps, if any.

– In a small bowl, mix the tahini, lemon juice, and water until well combined. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

– Remove the eggplant from the flame. You’ll know it’s ready when its skin is no longer purple and it is fairly soft. The skin should not be charred (like used coal), just blackened.

– Let the eggplant rest for a few minutes, and drain any liquids that escape.

– Split the eggplant open (careful, it’s hot) and run a fork along the flesh like a rake. This will make the flesh easier to eat as you won’t need to work at separating it from the skin. Season each half lightly with salt and pepper to taste.

– Spoon some yogurt on each half. Drizzle tahini sauce over the yogurt. Sprinkle with pine nuts and minced herbs.

Serves 2

Variations:
– Instead of yogurt, use labaneh, a kind of tangy yogurt cheese of Middle Eastern origin.
– Instead of crushed pine nuts, use black sesame seeds, or nigella seeds.
– Sprinkle roasted cumin seeds on top.

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