Now that it is Spring, we have an obligation to leave our homes, go out of doors, start fires, and roam through creek beds. In my neck of the woods, the weather has not completely taken the hint: Just today I woke to a 31 degree morning and scraped a thin layer of ice from my windshield. But even though the weather is not currently suited for outdoor jaunts, I will act as if every day is 72 degrees and sunny. I will wear shorts. I will plant seed in the ground. I will roll the windows down. And you should too.
This week, I had the great pleasure to take a trip back to the Kentucky River, to see my mother and my father, my brother and my sisters. One evening, my brother and I built a fire on the crest of a hill overlooking the stony creek below. Over hot coals, we cooked flatbread, grilled chicken with spicy red chili oil and lemon, and made baba ganoush. If you’re not familiar with baba ganoush, have I got a treat for you. Put simply, baba ganoush is roasted and mashed eggplant. But such a description does not do it justice in the least. Baba ganoush is a dish whose preparation is just as enticing as the flavors of the finished product. The process is primal, intense, and ruggedly beautiful.
The eggplant is rubbed with oil and then thrown directly onto hot coals. The skin burns, turning black and grey and blue. As it cooks, the eggplant softens, and the smoke permeates deeply into the flesh. The flavor rivals the smoky earthiness of barbeque, and if I were a vegetarian, this would be my go-to grill-out food. Consider this recipe your excuse to get outside! Go! Post-haste!
Baba Ganoush, or, How to Play with Fire (makes a bunch)
2 medium eggplants
3 tbsp tahini
1 tbsp good olive oil
1/2 tsp black pepper
juice of half a lemon
3/4 tsp salt
1 head of roasted garlic, smashed
Begin by starting a fire. You could use charcoal, as well. I do not recommend using anything other than natural hardwood charcoal, as it is not made with harmful chemicals. It’s also important that you do not flood the charcoal with lighter fluid. You will, after all, be cooking the eggplant directly on the coals. When the flame has died down and the coals are red and roaring hot, place the two oiled eggplants into the coals. Let them cook on each side for about 10 minutes. Meanwhile, slice off the top of an entire head of garlic, drizzle it with oil, place it in foil and throw it into the coals.
Once the skin of the eggplant has collapsed and the flesh is completely tender and yielding, carefully remove the eggplant from the coals and place it in foil to steam for 5 minutes. Remove the garlic from the coals. After 5 minutes, peel off the burned outer skin of the eggplant and chop off the tops. On a cutting board, chop the eggplant until it becomes smooth and nearly homogenous. Lots of folks like to give their baba ganoush a spin in the food processor, but I appreciate a more natural consistency.
When the garlic is just cool enough to handle, squeeze out the softened and roasty flesh. To a large bowl, add the mashed eggplant, garlic, tahini, olive oil, lemon, salt, and black pepper. Mix it together with a spoon. If you have it, sprinkle a little za’atar over the top. At this point, it’s ready to eat. You can serve it with vegetables or charred flatbread and olives. If you have time and patience, you could let the baba ganoush cool in the fridge overnight. You might be wondering, why? Why not enjoy this delicacy forthwith? Here’s why: overnight, the smokiness continues to permeate the dip, so that by morning, it becomes almost obscenely smoky. Of course, it’s up to you.
A warm wind rolls gently through the window, and I raise my hands as if to rejoice. Standing before the opening, as the light shines through, my feet are still covered in thick winter camp socks. In fact, my entire outfit, from the old crocheted wool hat, to the heavy quilt draped awkwardly across my shoulder suggests that I believe this warm respite is something winter might soon take away. I am shirtless, warm-bellied and well-slept. Through the salt-stained glass, beyond the edge of the porch and across the road, I can see the beginning of spring’s verdant rapture; tender shoots driving up toward heaven from the dirt and ice. In my mind’s eye, this tiny fleck of green instantly grows six months into the future, and my front yard is now enveloped in an emerald blanket, and there is a grill that emits a spicy perfume of cedar and animal fat, and over us all, my closest friends and my love, there lays the gentle touch of the third beer. The music from an old stereo dictates the mood, punctuates the experience, like an exclamation point, an unspoken, internal shout for joy. And as I consider the moment, distilling it down into a strong and sweet emotion, I get a feeling of childlike excitement so intense that it almost takes hold of my body and wills me to dance. In the vision I’m dancing like Lazarus, raised from the dead.