We swear we're not trying to brown-nose anyone here. It's just that a particular guy who one of us might consider her boyfriend happens to have a Syrian father who is obsessed with a particular purple-skinned veggie and makes a mind-blowing baba ghannouj. We had to share his recipe.
When we begged for the prep details, Noble "Nobby" David, a retired neurologist, insisted on showing us the process in his Coral Gables kitchen and then emailed us recollections of why this recipe is so special to him.
"This Syrian delicacy has become a favorite in America for its unique flavor amongst the Middle Eastern appetizers known as meze," he wrote. "While some would consider it an acquired taste, it's generic appeal seems capable of overcoming common missteps in its preparation.
"My Syrian mother's execution of the dish set the standard. Its incomparable zest earned the praise of Syrian poets, usually impoverished, whom my father brought home. Though her sentiments toward his guests was less than charitable, she dutifully churned out baba which few cooks could match. Ironically, the name itself in Arabic means 'something to amuse father!'
"For some, perhaps, love of this unique flavor must be acquired. But I am in complete agreement with the phrase offered by an earlier writer, a lady whose name I cannot recall. She dubbed its appeal 'vulgarly seductive.' Why not make it and judge for yourself?"
The ingredient list will signal that Dr. David is no cookbook author (can you imagine The Joy of Cooking listing every ingredient as "approximately" or "to taste"?), and the directions are lengthy and detailed, but it was refreshing to meet someone so passionate about the preparation of a common appetizer. Give it a go and let us know if it was a success.
Noble David's Baba Ghanouj
Makes 1½ to 2 cups
1 large, unblemished eggplant
2 or 3 fresh cloves of garlic
approx. 1 tsp. salt
juice of 2 lemons
sesame tahini, to taste
olive oil, to taste
black pepper, to taste
Directions: He writes, "Superb baba ghannouj can only be made from a first-rate eggplant, a large, unblemished fruit with smooth dark-magenta skin, whose flesh yields softly to thumb pressure. Before broiling, I cut off the stem and pierce the stump with a cooking fork to manipulate the eggplant while broiling.
The technique of broiling the eggplant is critical. To prevent its explosion... the skin is perforated in several places with a cooking fork or toothpick to allow the escape of steam. Broiling in an electric oven, or even a gas oven, or over a charcoal fire will not impart that incomparable flavor that comes with roasting in a direct flame. My mother always used the gas burner on her stove. Because the process is so messy, I prefer the flame of a Coleman propane camping stove.
Start cooking from the dome, rotating at lengthy intervals, to apply the gas flame directly to all parts of the eggplant. It will become soft as steam emanates from the holes and cracks the skin, to the point where inserting a toothpick meets no resistance. Broil the stem end of the eggplant last, being careful not to break open the limp mass. [Editor's note: Yes, a "limp mass" can hardly be considered seductive.] Once the entire fruit is soft and all the cracking skin has become grayish and opalescent, it is carefully removed from the fire and allowed to cool.
You then have the bitchy task of peeling the flecks of parched skin away from the soft flesh of the eggplant. Once the skin is removed, the flesh is set aside in a bowl and we proceed to the next step.
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Place one or two garlic cloves in the bottom of the mortar and cover with a half teaspoon plus of salt. With a pestle, grind the garlic and salt into a paste. The juice of two lemons is then added to the mortar.
Dollop 3 or 4 tablespoons of tahini into the mortar and blend into that liquid, stirring with a spoon (or process in a blender) until the mixture becomes a sauce about the thickness of outdoor house paint. As it smoothes with the liquids its color lightens from tan to cream.
We have now reached the final stage of this labor-intensive production. The broiled eggplant meat is sliced transversely to break up its fibers. The stem end is chopped more vigorously. In a bowl it is combined with the taratoora (sauce) and mixed thoroughly by hand with a spoon, adding a dash of fine olive oil and freshly ground black pepper. The mixture may also be pounded together in a mortar, but the use of an electric blender for this final step is heresy! Enjoy.