Jim Dixon wrote about food for WW for more than 20 years, but these days he spends most of his time at his specialty food business Wellspent Market focusing on olive oil. Jim has always loved to eat and he encourages his customers to cook by sending them recipes every week through his newsletter. We are happy to have him back creating some special dishes just for him WW the readers.
Eggplant scares some cooks. They read recipes that call for salting and draining to make the night less bitter, a process that may have been useful once, but is not necessary with modern eggplant varieties that have carried any bitter taste from them. Lazy recipe writers also repeat the store-bought caution that eggplant absorbs oil and becomes greasy. If eggplant is not cooked properly, it can be tough and spongy.
And while there are many ways to make eggplant delicious, there’s one technique that’s almost foolproof, incredibly easy, and adaptable to a variety of dishes: Grill it.
Cooks around the world place whole eggplants in the fire until the skin is blackened and blistered. A little less primitive, but just as effective is grilling using hot coals or even propane. You can get good results with a pair of tongs and a gas burner, but sometimes it gets messy when liquids boil. The easy way to charred eggplant is your oven.
Turn it up to 450 degrees, make a few slits in the eggplant to let the steam out, place the whole eggplant in a casserole dish or pan and put it in the oven. I like to put parchment paper under it to make cleaning easier, but it’s not necessary. Let cook for 45 minutes or so, until the skin is dark, the juices run clear, and the eggplant has collapsed. Once cooled, the skin peels off and you have a silky, slightly smoky, perfectly cooked eggplant.
Mix it with tahini, lemon, garlic and olive oil for the traditional spread called baba ganoush, or chop it and combine it with tomatoes and cucumbers for a simple salad. I like to combine eggplant with Lebanese-style wheat berries, which are harvested while green and burned over an open flame in the field to remove the husks and impart a smoky flavor.
1 globe eggplant
1 cup freekeh*
1 liter of cherry tomatoes, halved
2 6-inch Persian-style cucumbers**, cut lengthwise and sliced
1/2 cup chopped parsley, fresh mint, or a combination of the two
3 green onions, thinly sliced
1/4 cup tahini
2 tablespoons of miso
Juice and peel from 1 lemon
3 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
3 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon kosher-style salt
*Freekah can be hard to find, but you can use regular wheat or farro (make sure it’s whole grain and not pearled, aka perlato or semi-perlato). Local farmers Anthony and Carol Boutard, suppliers of Ayers Creek cornmeal, beans, hulled barley and other heirloom crops to Portland’s top chefs and cooks, began harvesting green wheat to make freekeh years ago. They retired earlier this year, but Wellspent Market bought their stock of what they call parched green wheat and will sell it until supplies run out.
**Substitute an English-style cuke; a regular slicer works too, but remove the waxy skin.
Use a knife to cut a few slits in the skin, then bake the eggplant at 450 degrees for about 45 minutes or until it collapses and the juices run clear. When the eggplant is cool enough to handle, cut it in half lengthwise and remove the skin with your hands. Use the back of a knife to scrape off any cooked flesh that sticks to the skin. Discard the skin and coarsely grate the eggplant. Transfer to a large bowl.
Pour the freekeh into a pan and add water to cook by 2-3 inches. Add salt and simmer for about 45 minutes or until tender. Drain it well and add it to the eggplant.
In a small bowl, combine the tahini with a tablespoon or two of cold water and stir until the tahini thickens, a curious result of the hydrophilic properties of sesame seeds. Mix the miso, olive oil, lemon juice, zest and garlic, then mix the dressing into the eggplant.
You can add herbs and vegetables to the eggplant mixture, but for a more dramatic and Instagram-worthy presentation, spread the eggplant and freekah on a plate or plate, arrange the tomatoes and cucumber around the edge and sprinkle with herbs and green onions . . Drizzle more olive oil over everything and serve with pita or good bread.