After eggplant Parmesan, Middle Eastern baba ghanouj may be the second-most famous eggplant dish in the world. And I now think there must be a million different ways to prepare it.
As if to prove my point, the Lebanese mother of one of the girls in my food appreciation classes agreed to sample some of our baba ghanouj. “It’s good!” she declared. “But I like more lemon.”
She then went on to describe how she mixes the tahini (sesame paste) with lemon juice and a little water on the side before adding it to the eggplant. Being lazy cooks, we had just thrown everything together in a bowl. Do you suppose you can really taste the difference?
Perhaps the best thing about baba ghanouj is the short list of ingredients. All you need is a large eggplant, some tahani, garlic, lemon juice , ground cumin. All of these ingredients are available in most supermarkets these days. The tahini, which tastes and looks vaguely like peanut butter, typically is located in the international section with the other Middle Eastern ingredients. Usually the sesame solids have separated somewhat from the oil. If so, you need to spend a few moments with a long spoon mixing them together.
To prepare the eggplant, poke it in numerous places with the point of a knife so that steam can escape, then lay it on a baking sheet and place in a 375-degree oven until it is completely cooked through, about 1 hour. You’ll know it’s done when the skin is wrinkled, the eggplant has collapsed somewhat and it is squishy to the touch. Set it aside to cool.
While the eggplant is roasting, we make toasted pita chips by cutting whole pita bread into wedges, then gently separating the wedges into halves and spreading them on a flat work surface. Dab some extra-virgin olive oil onto each slice. Place these on a baking sheet and sprinkle with salt. Toast them until just golden in the oven.
When the eggplant is cool enough to handle, slice in half lengthwise to reveal the cooked meat inside. With all the rows of seeds in there, the kids thought it looked like octopus brains. With that in mind, they eagerly scooped out the gooey eggplant innards and placed them in a large mixing bowl. We used a plastic measuring cup for this, being careful not to get any of the tough skin into the mix. (Our Middle Eastern parent, meanwhile, says she roasts her eggplant over an open flame and takes extra steps to mix in some of the burnt skin. “It has a wonderful smokey flavor–like my mother used to make.”)
To the cooked eggplant add 1/4 cup tahini, the juice from 1/2 lemon, 3 minced cloves garlic, 1 tablespoon olive oil, 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin and salt to taste. Use a potato masher to crush, mix and stir everything together until smooth.
Adjust the seasoning as necessary and serve in a bowl garnished with chopped parsley and kalamata olives–and of course your home-made pita chips for dipping.