Friday, June 18, 2010

Smoky Eggplant

When Ana Sortun opened Sofra 5 minutes from our previous home, it seemed like the whole Cambridge-side-of-the-river world fell immediately in love with it. The lines were out the door. Everyone raved about the meze, the flat breads, the cookies, and the drinks. The lack of seating and somewhat shocking prices weren't going to stop anyone in this remote part of Cambridge from feeling like we were finally becoming a dining destination. Everyone except for me, that is. The problem was that my opinion of Sofra was so far from everyone else's, I found it safer to keep my mouth shut. Jason, Sammy, and I went there a few weeks after they opened and I thought it was completely mediocre and overpriced. The ideas seemed good, but execution was sloppy. When paying $15-20 per person for lunch, I am not very forgiving of sloppiness.

Whether I liked it or not, I ended up being dragged to Sofra once in a while by various friends and about 2 months before we were going to move far far away from this over-hyped place, I fell in love with it. I don't know how it happened. It must have been Maura Kilpatrick's seductive cakes that did it. She is the pastry chef of Sofra and Oleana and a very talented baker. Eventually, I gave the savory food another chance and what do you know -- it was good. They must have been in the middle of an opening craze when I tried them for the first time and eventually ironed out the kinks.

One of my favorite meze at Sofra is a smoky eggplant and I thought it would be fun to recreate at home. I knew how to roast an eggplant on a grill to give it that smoky flavor, but wasn't sure what Ana Sortun used to bind it. I was guessing there might be some mayo, but maybe something else too. So I googled for "Ana Sortun smoky eggplant recipe." Although I didn't find a recipe, I found her explanation of how she came up with that dish. She crossed a Greek version that involves garlicky mayo with a Turkish version known as Sultan's Delight. A bit more googling got me the answer of what Sultan's Delight was -- charred eggplant mixed with bechamel type sauce (milk thickened with flour/butter roux). Ana seasons her dish with the smokey urfa pepper. That's something I could't get my hands on in my neck of the woods, but I'll pick some up on my next trip to Cambridge. I ended up using some Allepo (a sweet and very mild pepper) since that's what I had in my pantry. When making bechamel, I infused the milk with garlic scapes since they are out in all the farmer's markets right now and taste so much better than store bought garlic, but the rest of the year, I'd just add a mashed garlic clove to the eggplant after mashing it with bechamel. The dish came out incredibly well and very close to Sofra's version.

Smoky Eggland Spread (inspired by Ana Sortun)

2 large eggplants
Juice of 1/2 lemon
3 Tbsp butter
3 Tbsp flour
1 cup boiling milk
Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg (optional)
1 garlic clove, mashed to a paste
1/4 cup mayo
Salt and pepper to taste (if you can find urfa pepper, use that)

  1. Preheat the grill to low. If using a gas grill, wrap some wood chips in aluminum foil, prick the top of that pocket a few times to allow smoke to escape and place this bundle on the grill. Prick the eggplants all over with a tooth pick so that they don't explode on the grill (do not trim the stem yet).
  2. Place eggplants on the grill next to the wood chip bundle, and cook for 25-30 minutes rotating every 7 minutes or so until the eggplants feel completely tender when poked with a toothpick all the way to the center.
  3. Remove eggplant to a plate and cool until you can touch them comfortably.  Gently peel the eggplants with your hands and discard the stem. Add lemon juice, season with salt, and mash roughly with a fork.
  4. Warm up milk to almost a boil.  I do it in the microwave keeping a close eye on the milk.  
  5. Set a 2 quart saucepan with slopped sides over medium-low heat.  Add butter.  When melted, add flour and whisk constantly for 3 minutes.  Towards the end of the 3 minutes, bring milk to a complete boil, but watch it carefully so that it doesn't boil over.  Remove the pan from heat, and add boiling milk all at once, and immediately whisk vigorously.  Return the pan to medium heat and bring to a simmer whisking to remove lumps.  Cook for 1 more minute, whisking.  
  6. Stir in nutmeg, eggplant, garlic, salt, and pepper to taste.  Puree lightly using an immersion blender or food processor.  Refrigerate until cool, then stir in mayo.  Can be served immediately, or chilled up to 3 days.
  7. Serve on crackers, flat breads, or as a side dish.  Goes well with mint and toasted pine nuts.  


Laura T. said...

Interesting, I never would have thought to use mayo in an eggplant dip. Sounds like a more subtle dip relative to baba ghanoush.

jo said...

It's the beet tzatziki that I adore.

Vegetable garden said...

Wow! That looks terrific. I can't wait to try that one.

Thanks for the recipe!