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.
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.) Read more