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a fork with a taste for adventure

When I was a newly-turned teen, my mother suddenly (and inexplicably) turned adventuresome in the kitchen. She’d always been a good cook, and our meals never lacked for flavor, but they never ventured beyond our borders either (unless you count England, and I’m sorry, I just can’t. Meaning no disrespect at all!) Meals at our house had followed along very traditional lines, until…around the time she married the man who was to become Dad to us.

Dad was Greek and maybe it was just his colorful character alone, or the foods he’d bring home from Foti’s (very Greek) deli; or the influence of Dad’s mom Yaya, who’d make us Sunday dinners of Greek roasted chicken doused in fresh lemon and filled with whole heads of garlic and her plump handful of oregano from the garden, and her zucchini and okra in a skillet, and her brilliant yellow-orange zucchini blossoms, dipped in egg batter and fried. Or maybe too, it was that Dad insisted for special outings we drop into Poncho’s Mexican restaurant, which was, strange to say, our family’s first introduction to south of the border. Maybe it was a combination of these things – or maybe it was that Mom enrolled in college for the first time  – Mom was herself becoming more adventuresome and her new spirit found its way onto our table.

In any event, whatever the cause, dinner became, more and more, an exotic experience. That’s not to say it became the norm for us to eat things beyond the familiar, or that we came to the table dressed in saris.  Just that we gradually came to be more curious, more daring, more open to new things, until gradually we’d developed a real appetite for the gorgeously exotic on our plates, a hunger for something not yet tasted.

I don’t eat many “meats”. Poultry and seafood’s about it for me. But vegetables, and fruits, and grains and beans and spices from all over the planet, those I find endlessly enticing. And so it is, that when I first set eyes on Yotam Ottolenghi’s newest book Plenty, I was smitten! This dish that I’m about to fix and share is the very dish that graces the cover. It sucked me in with a rush like a door just opened onto a wind storm. I was a goner.

Ottolenghi, chef and co-owner of several restaurants called by his name (including one in London) writes a weekly column for the London Guardian on vegetarian cooking, though he himself is not vegetarian. From Israel, he draws on a wealth of culinary traditions, with a strong focus on the Mediterranean basin. His dishes may very well scratch every culinary itch I have, one by one.

So here – with a thankful nod to my mom who grew this wild love of food in me, and to my Dad who might have grown it in her –

from the cover of Plenty

Eggplant with Buttermilk Sauce

(serves 4 as starter – or 2 for dinner with a salad & bread) large and long eggplants

  • 2 large and long eggplants
  • 1/3 cup olive oil
  • 1½ teaspoon lemon thyme leaves, plus a few whole sprigs to garnish
  • Maldon sea salt (or any flaky sea salt) and black pepper
  • 1 pomegranate
  • 1 teaspoon za’atar (see NOTE)


  • 9 Tablespoons buttermilk (just over ½ cup)
  • ½ cup Greek yogurt
  • 1½ Tablespoons olive oil, plus a drizzle to finish
  • 1 small garlic clove, crushed
  • pinch of salt

NOTE: Za’atar – here is one thing that may be a bit of an obstacle in Ottolenghi’s book(s)…because he’s drawing on his (and other) heritages, some ingredients – in particular the spices and spice blends – will be very unfamiliar, and not always easily obtained. I ordered my little bottle of za’atar from the Spice House on-line. $4.99. Za’atar is a spice blend, and like others, the ingredient list and proportions can vary. One recipe for it that I found on-line included sumac, thyme, roasted sesame seeds, marjoram, oregano and salt. Sumac is acidic, quite tart, much like a lemon, and is considered an essential culinary ingredient in much of the Middle East. It’s by far the predominant  ingredient in this blend. Since sumac isn’t on my grocery shelf either, I decided just to go ahead and order the za’atar on line. You could read more on sumac or order it, here. If you’re feeling particularly adventuresome, simply add the herbs called for in the za’atar ingredient list along with lemon for something approximating this dish. Or wait, as I did, for the za’atar to arrive on your welcome mat.)

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Cut the eggplants in half lengthwise, cutting straight through the green stalk – which stays intact just for the looks of it. Using a small sharp knife, make three or four parallel incisions in the cut side of each eggplant half as deeply as possible but being careful not to cut through to the skin. Repeat at a 45° angle to create a diamond-shaped pattern.

Place the eggplant halves, cut-side up, on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Brush them with olive oil and continue brushing until all the oil has been absorbed. Sprinkle with the lemon thyme leaves and salt and pepper.

Roast for 45 minutes up to an hour, depending on size of eggplant. The flesh should be soft, flavorful and nicely browned. Remove from the oven and allow to cool completely.

Removing pomegranate seeds: While the eggplants are in the oven, cut the pomegranate into two horizontal halves. Holding one half, cut side down, in the palm of your hand, place over a deep bowl and begin smacking the top-side of the fruit with a wooden spoon. Smack harder as you go to release the deepest of the pomegranate seeds into the bowl. Remove any white pitch that fell in along with. (Illustrated here.)

The sauce: whisk together all the ingredients. Taste for seasoning, then chill until needed.

To serve: Spoon plenty of buttermilk sauce over the eggplant halves – but don’t cover the stalks! Sprinkle za’atar and plenty of pomegranate seeds on top and garnish with lemon thyme. Finish with a drizzle more of olive oil.

If this is to be a main dish, you might pair with a good salad, perhaps some slices of cheese (maybe even one you’ve never tried before) and some crusty bread. (Maybe even some from your own oven!)

~ ~ ~

Gratefully borrowed from Plenty

Vibrant Vegetable Recipes from London’s Ottolenghi

by Yotam Ottolenghi

~ ~ ~

ps. when summer comes, and the zucchinis in the garden are practically the size of eggplants, I think I’ll try the same treatment.

For a printer-friendly version of the recipe, click here.

~ ~ ~

23 Comments Post a comment
  1. Absolutely love this!! Eggplant is one of my favorite vegetables. I am most definitely going to make this. Love that second photo too!

    January 16, 2012
  2. This looks amazing! I love eggplant too and I’m always looking for new ways to cook it. I love the addition of pomegranate seeds!

    January 16, 2012
  3. Ali #

    Wow! Not sure what I love most about this post—the pictures, the prose or the recipe itself! Must try!

    January 16, 2012
    • Oh I do think you must — if you have any eggplant likers in your house, this will go fast!

      January 16, 2012
  4. Where’s the love button?

    January 16, 2012
  5. Annie #

    I just love the way you write! I wonder what makes that strong connection we have between women and food? I seriously think about what I might eat or make next all of the time! Is that unusual? Is it because we are in charge of feeding our children? Or because we want something creative to do with the long days that seem to run together? I don’t know but I love the way you intertwine your love for food, family & fun. Keep it up!

    January 16, 2012
    • Thank you so much – what a kind compliment! And is it unusual? I rather doubt it, and I do it all the time! I agree it has a great deal to do with the caretaker thing, whether it’s the man or the woman with the job. And who knows? Maybe it’s even hard-wired into us to always be looking over the next hill for our next meal. 🙂 thanks again for the comment Annie!

      January 16, 2012
  6. What fun to always be learning something new about you and your history through these posts. You inspire me with your language, stories, enthusiasm and amazing images. This sounds fascinating and yum!

    January 16, 2012
    • Thank you for the very sweet thoughts Ashley! 😉

      January 16, 2012
  7. Cooking as art … lovely and appetizing!

    January 16, 2012
  8. I really do like roasted eggplant and topping it with a buttermilk/yogurt sauce sounds delicious, Spree. The next time I’m in one of the Middle-Eastern groceries, I’m going to look for za’atar. I’d love to try this recipe and thanks for sharing it with us.

    January 16, 2012
    • John – Having tried za’atar now only once, I can say I like it, I like it! I’ll be sprinkling it here and there, I’m already dreaming the ways. An absolute natural with hummus, drizzled with olive oil & pita tho. Would love to hear what you think if you try it!

      January 17, 2012
  9. I love Ottolenghi, and you’ve done him proud. Beautiful photography – top!

    January 17, 2012
    • I couldn’t be more pleased than if I have done Ottolenghi proud! 🙂 Thanks Roger.

      January 17, 2012
  10. What a stunning dish – I have heard so much about the Ottolenghi book that I feel I really must buy it soon! Loved to hear the story about how youur family´s attitude to food changed and the “blossoming” of your mother (fabulous). And finally I especially love the photo of the whisk…!

    January 17, 2012
    • I agree Chica! It’s a wonderful thing, blossoming, no matter when or how it comes. Proud of my mum!

      January 17, 2012
  11. Spree, I’m speechless. That looks absolutely wonderful. Divinity itself! I must buy this book. Everyone’s talking about it!

    January 17, 2012
  12. This looks wonderful. I wonder if I could trick my husband into eating this. He dislikes eggplant but how could he dislike this?

    January 17, 2012
    • Loving eggplant myself, it’s hard to imagine. But when people object to eggplant, it’s usually the texture…and that hasn’t changed in this dish. The taste is glorious.

      January 18, 2012
  13. Not only does this dish look divine, but the pictures are heavenly! I must learn to use my camera!

    January 17, 2012
  14. This looks amazing Spree… I will be trying it with a substitute for the buttermilk next week… We will be in Israel and therefore definitely in the spirit to go to the market and get the prettiest eggplants for this dish. Thanks for sharing (by the way, your humus also looks wonderful…when I feel brave I’ll try your recipe). Félicitations!

    March 16, 2013
    • So nice of you to stop by and leave such a lovely comment, thank you! How lucky for you to be shopping the markets in Israel for the prettiest eggplants!! I hope you’ll let me know how it goes for you! WIshing you luck, and wishing you “bravery” sufficient to make the hummus – it will require so very little! 🙂 Have a wonderful trip!

      March 18, 2013

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