Okay it’s the first day of summer and for many of us that means the grill is getting a good workout; most proteins and vegetables and even fruit that are cooked, charred, or grilled are transformed by cooking on the outdoor grill, especially one that uses hardwood charcoal and is augmented by the addition of aromatic smoking provided by applewood, hickory or mesquite woodchips. Grilling and smoking are the tastes of summer, and, as the saying goes, everything tastes better outdoors (if it is cooked outdoors). In this nice personal essay, Denise Sakai explains why that just might be. By the way, just a reminder, if you use a gas grill it is always a good idea to give it a good cleaning at the start of the season; here’s how.
One of our favourite dishes in the summer is baba ganoush, made from eggplants that have been roasted and smoked on the grill. Baba ganoush is the delicious meze, or appetizer that hails from the Middle East, with minor regional variations in Israel, Syria, Palestine and the other countries of the Levant. Typically the eggplant is roasted, the soft insides are scooped out and mixed with olive oil, tahini, lemon and garlic, a little salt and pepper and maybe garnished with some fresh herbs like parsley or cilantro. Served with fresh cut veggies and warmed pita, it is one of those shared appetizers that disappears all too quickly.
The difference between grilled eggplant and oven-baked eggplant is glaringly obvious. Because eggplant is so porous and absorbent it soaks up all sorts of flavours from the charcoal and smoke from your grill. (Hopefully there are not too many aromas lounging about in your oven…) This results in a greater depth of flavour; as we know, unadulterated eggplant is on the neutral side, which makes it a great team player.
When making your baba ganoush, bear in mind that a one-pound eggplant (or smaller eggplants totalling one pound) should suffice as an appetizer for four to six people. Here’s what you need:
1 one-pound eggplant (or eggplants totalling 1 lb)
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons tahini
1 clove garlic, chopped
juice of 1 lemon
salt and pepper
To grill your eggplant you can use either of two methods; grill the eggplant whole, or slice it and grill the slices, which gives you a lovely smoky flavor in less than half the time, and also allows you to monitor the cooking process, and determine exactly the level of doneness. Some folks after all, prefer their eggplant to have a little more “body.” If you opt for the second method, remove the skin of the eggplant and slice it about ½ inch thick before grilling. Some people insist on lightly salting the slices and letting them rest in a collander anywhere from a 15 minutes to an hour so that excess fluid drains out, but this is not really necessary if you are grilling as the moisture gets cooked out. Brush the slices lightly with olive oil, season them with salt and pepper and place on the grill, grilling for about 5 or 6 minutes on each side. Remove and let cool.
To grill the eggplant whole, heat your grill to around 400 F. Depending on your grill, you want the coals/heat source to be at least 5 or 6 inches away from your eggplant so it doesn’t burn. Poke the eggplant all over with a fork; this will allow it to cook faster as well as allow the smoke to permeate the vegetable. Don’t work about losing some of the juices during the cooking process as you don’t want your baba ganoush to be too watery anyway; many recipes actually call for you to spin the cooked eggplant in a salad spinner to remove excess fluid. Turn the eggplant over several times while it is on the grill so it cooks evenly, anywhere from 30-45 minutes, or until it is a little “saggy” and browned all over. Remove from the grill and allow it to cool, then scoop out the insides and set aside.
Once room temperature, place your eggplant in your food processor and add the tahini, olive oil lemon juice and chopped garlic and blitz it up. Simple. Taste and adjust flavours to your liking, maybe a touch more lemon juice, or salt and pepper.
Slice up some cool, crisp cucumbers, carrots and celery, toss the pita on the grill for a minute or two and dig in!