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Last week I did a cooking demonstration for the first People of the Book Festival of Los Angeles at the Hillel House of UCLA. When I discussed the menu with Dorothy Salkin, who organized the cookbook program, I suggested an eggplant appetizer.
"Definitely let's have eggplant," Dorothy responded enthusiastically. As cooking teachers and eggplant lovers, we felt there's always plenty to learn about the Middle Eastern "king of vegetables."
When it comes to eggplant appetizers, what first comes to mind are the dips found at the heart of the Mideast - Israeli/Lebanese/Egyptian eggplant with tahina and Israeli eggplant with mayonnaise. Yet cousins of these eggplant starters are equally popular in a much broader area, from the Black Sea to the Caspian.
For the book festival I decided to demonstrate a Balkan eggplant and pepper dip called ajvar (pronounced "ay-var"). This Bulgarian specialty, also popular in the countries that once composed Yugoslavia, starts off like Israeli eggplant salads, with grilled or roasted eggplant, and is combined with roasted peppers.
Jars of ajvar from Bulgaria are labeled mild or hot, depending on the type of peppers mixed with the eggplant. At delis in Israel I've had Bulgarian eggplant salad, but it was usually dotted sparsely with peppers. I like this salad best when I make it at home with generous amounts of freshly roasted red peppers, which lend sweetness and a lovely reddish hue.
A similar tasty red salad from Croatia calls for blending roasted green peppers with eggplant and adding an equal weight of roasted tomatoes, according to Liliana Pavicic and Gordana Pirker-Mosher, authors of The Best of Croatian Cooking (Hippocrene, 2000). Ozcan Ozan, author of The Sultan's Kitchen (Periplus, 1998), prepares Turkish salad from the same vegetables but keeps each element distinct by mixing the roasted eggplant with chopped and grilled green peppers, fresh tomatoes, garlic, olive oil and lemon juice. Ground walnuts and olives embellish a similar eggplant dip called cyopoloo, according to Atanas Slavov, author of Traditional Bulgarian Cooking (Hippocrene, 1998).
Instead of roasting the peppers, Benny Saida, author of Food from the Balkan (Modan, 1998), sautes sweet and hot peppers in olive oil, then cooks them with roasted eggplant, tomatoes and garlic. An Armenian variation calls for adding sauteed onions as well.
A technique favored in Georgia, according to Kay Shaw Nelson, author of Cuisines of the Caucasus Mountains (Hippocrene, 2002), requires roasting only the eggplant and adding the chopped peppers raw, along with olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, green onion and fresh coriander.
Most of these salads are served at room temperature, but recently I discovered a delicious Persian version that is served warm as a vegetarian main course. At Shoomal in Tarzana, California, a restaurant specializing in the cuisine of northern Iran, I tasted mirza ghasemi, a dish from Iran's Caspian region. It resembled the Balkan roasted eggplant salads but was cooked with beaten eggs.
"As in so many recipes from the northern provinces, garlic is an important ingredient," wrote Margaret Shaida, author of The Legendary Cuisine of Persia (Interlink, 2002). Indeed, a generous amount of sauteed garlic gave the dish a lovely aroma and flavor. To make it, roasted eggplant is combined with sauteed garlic, chopped tomatoes and turmeric, then cooked until thick and finished with eggs. It's served either with fresh flatbread or with hot Basmati rice. I like it both ways. My husband gave it the ultimate compliment, saying it tasted like an eggplant version of a childhood favorite - shakshuka, or Israeli scrambled eggs with tomatoes.
BALKAN PEPPER AND EGGPLANT DIP
You can dice the roasted peppers and mix them with the eggplant, or puree them with the eggplant in a food processor. Serve it with fresh country bread or pita or to accompany grilled chicken. For a light lunch or supper, you can make a sandwich of it with an egg or a little feta cheese, or scramble it with a few tomatoes and eggs and serve it warm.
This tasty salad is healthy, too. Peppers are high in vitamin A, eggplants contain beneficial soluble fiber and olive oil is rich in mono-unsaturated fat.
2 medium eggplants (total about 1 kg.)
1 kg. red bell peppers
3 red or green hot peppers (optional)
1 onion, minced (optional)
3 garlic cloves, minced
salt and freshly ground pepper
Hot paprika or cayenne pepper to taste
2 to 3 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
1 Tbsp. white wine vinegar or lemon juice
Prick eggplants a few times with fork. Preheat oven to 200 C. Set eggplants in a shallow roasting pan, lined with foil if you like. Bake them, turning them over once, for 45 minutes, or until they are very soft when you press them and look collapsed.
Broil bell peppers, turning them often, for about 15 minutes or until their skins blister all over. Transfer them to a bowl and cover tightly; or put them in a plastic bag and close the bag. Broil or grill fresh hot peppers the same way, turning them often - they will need only about 5 minutes; be careful, as they burn rapidly. Transfer them to a bowl or bag as well.
Leave sweet and hot peppers in the bag for about 10 minutes. Peel peppers using paring knife. Remove caps, seeds and ribs. Be careful; there may be hot liquid inside them. Drain them well.
Chop eggplant and peppers very fine with a knife or puree them in a food processor, leaving a few chunks. Transfer to a bowl.
Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a skillet. Add onion and cook over medium-low heat for about 7 minutes or until softened. Add garlic and cook for 1/2 minute. Add to eggplant mixture and mix well. Season to taste with salt, pepper and hot paprika. Stir in vinegar and remaining oil. Taste and adjust seasoning. Serve cold or at room temperature.
Makes 6 to 8 servings.
Faye Levy is the author of Feast from the Mideast (HarperCollins).