Saturday, May 31, 2008
Every nation has an aubergine dip: The Greeks mix the charred vegetable with tomato, walnut, vinegar and make melitzanosalata (aubergine salad). In the Levant it is mixed with tahini and called baba ganoush. The dwellers of Anatolia, masters of preparing this dark purple berry*, make a range of dishes, from Hunkar Begendi (aubergine with lamb) to saksuka (dip with paprika, tomato and red sauce). The Sephardi Jews mix the grilled plant with mayo and lemon juice, to have a pareve dish** called Chatzilim Pareve. In India, there is Baigan Bharta, where grilled aubergine is mixed with green peas and Indian spices. And when it comes to Persians, they have their very own Kashk o baademjaan.
There are two different things about the Persian dish compared to the other ones. The first is that we fry the aubergine in this dish instead of grilling, roasting, char-roasting or steaming it. The second is using persian whey, which is whitish paste obtained from the left-overs of curdling milk into cheese.
I hope you are not wondering what aubergine is. For the readers in North America, its the same as eggplant. Its not my francophile side, trying to make myself sound more food savvy using the French phrase. Let me explain. I have a phobia towards eggplant. Not the vegetable, only the word. I grew up learning English where color has got a "u" before the last letter, larder is used for the place storing the food stuff at home (instead of pantry), and chips is fried julienned potatoes (like fish & chips, and I do miss that greasy fried haddock and the fries soaked in malt vinegar served in a newspaper cone), while crisps are the dried thin slices of potato sold in packs in the supermarket. My first encounter with the word eggplant was at the age 22 where it made no sense (it still doesnt): what has the oval body exiting the posterior opening of a chicken got to do with a plant, and the whole word combination with the elongated purple vegetable?!!! ten years after being introduced to the word, and living for almost three years where people make a weird look if you ask for aubergine, I still dont feel comfortable with eggplant.
What type of aubergine to buy? At home baademjaan (the persian word for aubergine, and its etymological ancestor) is a slender vegetable, while the ones you find in US suffer from the nationwide obesity problem, and are too plumpish. And whats wrong with the plumpish vegetable? it makes you fat! I'm not kidding, I'm quite serious! The plumpish vegetable has got lots of air pockets, so when you fry them they absorb a lot of oil, and this oil will turn into fat into your body and .... (The other issue with the non-slender ones is they've got more of the bitter juice). At home, my mom used the slender ones, peeled them, dried them in the sun for a few hours with a little bit of salt sprinkled atop, and they were ready to be fried. In Boston, well the sun is not potent enough (and definitely not reliable for culinary purposes), so I do a few extra steps with the plumpish ones.
* weird isnt it? but its true. Botanically speaking, aubergine is a berry!
**Food that contains no dairy or meat content, and thus can be consumed with either of them.
Kashk o bademjaan continues
2-3 aubergines (see note above)
2-3 tbsp + 1 tbsp kashk (persian-style whey)
1 white onion large size
2-3 cloves of garlic
2-3 tbsp of hot water
4-5 tbsp of kosher salt
8 tbsp of vegetable oil
1.5-2 tbsp dried mint
2-3 pinches of ground black pepper
1-2 pinches of advieh i.e. persian spice mix (nutmeg, black pepper, red pepper, turmeric, cumin, cinnamon, fenugreek and cardamom)
large frying pan
small frying pan
lots of paper towel
To buy the best plumpish aubergines, go with those which have got a shiny dark purple colour, and are heavy for their size (thus having less air pockets inside). Peel and make slices of ~ 1 cm thick. Get a plate and pour the kosher salt (koshering salt to be technically correct) in it. Dip both sides of the slices in the salt and leave in a colander for around an hour and put it on top of a bowl. Just as the salt would absorb the blood of meat during the process of preparing meat in the kosher manner, it does the same with the bitter juice of the aubergine: After the first minutes you can see the liquid is gradually oozing out of the sliced aubergines. When the liquid gets out, the pockets collapse, absorbing less oil when fried, and the alkaloid-rich juice, giving aubergine a bitter flavour is also extracted, thus making the dish more tasty.
After an hour or so, wash the slices under running cold water, and rub them so any salt attached would be removed, otherwise it would be too salty. Give each slice a gentle squeeze between your palms, and leave them on paper towel and cover with another layer. A little press on the eggplant-sandwiched-paper towels will get all the moisture out of them.
Put 4-5 tbsp of vegetable oil in the large frying pan and when the oil gets hot, sautee the crushes of garlic for 2-3 minutes, and get them out (dont throw away). This will infuse the oil with a garlic fragrance. Make sure there is no moisture covering the aubergines; otherwise you will get splashes of hot oil when the slices are placed in the pan. Put the aubergine slices in the pan, not more than one layer at a time and fry each side for ~7-10 minutes until each side is crispy and golden. Continue till you have all the sliced aubergines fried. If the aubergines absorb all the oil, add 1-2 tbsp at a time. Dont worry about atherosclerosis! a lot of the oil will be sponged out and discarded later.
Place the fried aubergines on paper towel, so they are as least greasy as possible. Slice the onion and fry it in oil for 12-15 minutes till its golden brown. Add the spices (black pepper & mixed spice ) to the onion in the last 3-4 minutes so the spices give out their fragrant oils. Spare 1-2 tbsp of fried onion for decoration, and put the rest in the pot with the aubergine slices and the fried garlic. Add 1-2 tablespoons of kashk (whey) and same amount of hot water, and on low heat mix all the ingredients with the wooden spoon until all get mashed up. Taste and add more kashk if desired. The saltiness should come from the juice-extracting procedure; if not salty enough add as desired. Through mixing and mashing, you can feel whether you need more hot water or not. If you want it to be non-vegetarian and enhance the flavour with meat, use beef broth or bouillon cubes***. However, I usually keep this dish veggie and have meat flavour when I'm making the twin dish, halim baademjaan, which wolud be for another posting.
The same garnish (see below) would be used for haleem bademjoon and Aash Reshte (Persian thick noodle soup with green vegetables and beans). To garnish, place the mush in a plate and flatten. Mix one tbsp of kashk with water so it becomes thinner. pour over the aubergine. Add the crushed mint to one tbsp oil and fry for 1-2 minutes and put on top. Add a pinch of mixed spices and fry in 1/2 tbsp of oil, then add the yellowish oil in drops over the kashk and the aubergine. Top with the fried onions you've left aside. The garnish is up to you. However, dont get too much caught in it as the dish would get cold. Serve with pita bread.
Nooshe jaan ! (Buon appetito)
*** Watch the salt contents of the bouillon cubes. Otherwise you'll end up with a salty dish, and keep wondering for a day why it got so salty. It happened once to me!