Many years ago, when I began to be a cooking hobbiest, the first meal I prepared for company was a Middle Eastern feast: Tabbouli salad, Hummous, pita bread, Baba Ganoush, roast lamb.
It was all from scratch, even the pita, which caused me almost to cry when they puffed up and split just the way they’re supposed to; it was like a miracle. The Hummous started with dried chickpeas that I had to soak and cook before I could even start with the tahini and parsley and such. The Tabbouli took forever because food processors had not yet made it into the average home kitchen; I chopped until my arm nearly came off. The Baba Ganoush was wonderfully garlicky and creamy at the same time, scooped up with the fresh pita. The lamb was rubbed with yet more garlic and lots of fresh mint. The only thing I bought was the baklava for dessert. It was a smashing success.
There was just one teeny little problem. And now, nearly 35 years later, I know what the problem was. The thing I made with eggplant? It wasn’t baba ganoush. I happened to see a carton of baba ganoush in the store the other day and it was the wrong color: a smooth, blond paste more like hummous than the rough tan and scarlet mixture I’d been making all these years. “Boy,” I thought, “are these people dumb. They don’t even know the proper name for baba ganoush.” Then I went home and looked it up and if I’d been a puppy, my tail would have been reaching for the floor.
Baba Ganoush is basically eggplant hummous, made with garlic and sesame butter. Poor Man’s Caviar, which is what I made, is a chunkier blend of grilled, roasted or broiled smoky eggplant with garlic, olive oil, onions or bell peppers, lemon and, sometimes, tomatoes.
It was Poor Man’s Caviar, or, as it’s known in Russia, ikra.
Ikra actually means caviar and is a word of Turkish or Iranian origin that refers to eggs — the eggs of the sturgeon that are prized as one of the world’s most expensive, most savored and, sadly, most rapidly disappearing gourmet foods.
What’s that got to do with eggplant spread?
Sturgeon are most often associated with Russia, but the fish have flourished almost around the globe and long were harvested in waters off Turkey, Iran, the Ukraine and Russia, as well. As eggplant is one of the oldest known domesticated plants, with a history that goes back 4,000 years, it has given birth to thousands of recipes and spread from what is believed to be its first home, India, all the way to the Mediterranean and Eastern Europe.
The story goes that the men who fished for sturgeon in the Ukraine and Russia couldn’t afford to eat their catch, so they made an eggplant topping for their bread instead, using what humble ingredients were to hand.
It came to be called “Poor Man’s Caviar,” or, in England, where eggplant are called aubergines, “Aubergine Caviar.”
The recipes range from spare — eggplant, garlic, olive oil, lemon juice – to quite complex (and unnecessarily so, if you ask me).
I like my Poor Man’s Caviar rustic, chunky, uncomplicated: eggplant charred until the skin is almost black, garlic, a little olive oil, a little more lemon juice, drained canned tomatoes, minced parsley.
I made Hubert Keller’s recipe the other day and didn’t like it at all; it was too runny, more a sauce than a dip. I had to go out and buy four more eggplant (the smallish round ones, about the size of a softball, not the globe or Japanese ones) and add more lemon. He called for fresh tomatoes. Bad idea, they contain too much water and further diluted the mixture. I drained a can of whole plum tomatoes, cut them into chunks and drained them again, then added them.
So here’s my recipe, which I call:
Not Baba Ganoush
3 large globe eggplants or equivalent round or Japanese long eggplants
1 (15-ounce) can whole tomatoes, drained
2-4 cloves garlic, minced or mashed
Juice of 2-3 lemons
A couple of good splashes of olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
Minced flat-leaf parsley (perhaps a quarter bunch)
Char the eggplants until the skin is deep brown or black and the flesh is soft. (I didn’t want to start up the grill and don’t have a gas oven so I cut them into eighths, painted them with olive oil and broiled them close to the element, turning to brown the flesh on both sides.
Cool until you can touch them. With a spoon, slide the eggplant off the skin and discard skin. In a large bowl, with two knives wielded as you would in cutting butter and flour in pastry, roughly chop the eggplants. Place drained tomatoes in medium bowl and cut them in the same way, then drain in colandar (save the juice from both drainings to use in sauce or soup). Add tomatoes. Add garlic and lemon juice. Season with salt and pepper. Taste and doctor as you like.
Serve Poor Man’s Caviar with dry toast made from good country bread or with pita. I actually filled a chapati with some and had it for lunch and it was awesome.