Sunday, September 22, 2013

Obsessed with Eggplant - by way of Israel - via Calabria, Sicily and New Orleans

Most of the past week was spent in New Orleans. It’s the closest I can get to Sicily, and the food culture there is somewhat of a recharge for me. The people are relationship driven and the wine and cocktail scene there is bristling with life. It’s my kind of place and it’s in my back yard, so I am very happy to go there.

One night I had a reservation at Domenica, a John Besh restaurant. Alon Shaya is the chef, and everything I have eaten there has been way above the baseline of goodness. Alon takes inspiration not just from Italy, but also the Mediterranean. The night I was there I ordered his fire roasted eggplant with tahini and when I tasted it I thought I had died and gone to Heaven. If it were my last meal, I would die a happy man. But I am not ready to go yet, so when I got home I decided to re-create the dish.

19 different ways
If there is one thing I am comfortable with, it is eggplant. I think Alon would like my version. I added just a little anchovy and some hot Calabrian peppers, to give it a little more spike. Other than that, I followed my palate and recreated the flavors as well as I could. I think it came out well. That is to say, I will make this dish over and over again. When I went to bed that night, I dreamt about the dish. So it has entered my soul, for the betterment of all.

Wine wise, we paired it with a 2012 Bonny Doon Vin Gris de Cigare, a rosé of 62% grenache, 17% mourvèdre, 9% roussanne, 6% grenache blanc, 6% Cinsault from the Central Coast of California. Fresh fruit, nice acid and realistic alcohol level (12.5%) made for a thirst quenching and slurpable match with the spicy dish. The bottle (which sells for under $20) disappeared as quickly as the eggplant.

I also envisioned a nice Etna Rosso (or Rosato). I’ve been thinking a lot about Salvo Foti and his I Vigneri wines, and I remember his accomplice Maurizio loves the rosé they make, the Vignudilice, a field blend of Alicante, Grecanico, Minella and other minor varieties from the 100+ year old Bosco vineyard. If I had a bottle I’d definitely try it with this dish. I miss Maurizio and Salvo, wish I could be there this year stomping my feet and singing to the songs of the makeshift musicians inside the Palmetto. In the meantime, I will have to maintain a lively inner life and hope someday to get back there. Thank God New Orleans is close.

The recipe:

Roasted Eggplant with Tahini

Heat outside grill and turn inside oven on 400 °F

• Eggplants – 2 to 3
• Large can crushed tomato (I use Sclafani)
• Tahini
• Lemons
• Calabrian peppers (optional)
• Anchovy (leave this out if you want the vegan version)
• Italian parsley
• Seasonings (see recipe)

Cut in half – long wise
Brush inside with olive oil
Season – for a quickie I did Cavender’s Greek Seasoning and Penzey’s garlic powder
Put on grill – cut side first – until seared, about 5 minutes
Brush skin with olive oil and turn eggplant halves over – 5 minutes
Brush inside of eggplant with olive oil and turn over one last time for 3 minutes.

Bring eggplants inside and arrange on baking platter, skins down.
Score the flesh with a knife, making sure you don’t go all the way through the skin.
Add anchovies (or anchovy paste) inside the skin, sparingly, to taste.
Add the Calabrian peppers, chopped, folding them in gently under the skin. (Optional)
Top with the crushed tomato, covering the skin.
Put in oven for 15-20 minutes at 375 °F .

While in the oven, chop a bunch of Italian parsley and set aside to garnish at the end. Proceed to make the tahini sauce.

The tahini sauce:
• 3 tablespoons tahini
• 2 tablespoons lemon juice
• 1 tablespoon water
• 1 tablespoon olive oil
• Mix thoroughly to get a consistency that sticks to the spoon, not too drippy

Check the eggplants in the oven and set to broil for five minutes. Make sure the tomato sauce doesn’t burn.

Take out of oven. Add the tahini sauce, drizzling over the top, liberally.
Add parsley.

Serve warm.

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