Trying to love eggplant

I don't know if anyone is born an eggplant person. I know I wasn't. I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that Mr Leaven wasn't. It's not my first choice, but I'll enjoy an eggplant parmigiana or some baba ghanoush from time to time. Mr Leaven won't.

I've given them a few tries over the past few years of culinary experimentation, and the results have been edible if not my favorite dishes in the world. Mr Leaven begrudgingly eats as little as possible of his eggplant-based dinners, then grills him up somethin' meaty and calls it a good night.

Last year, when I acquired a lovely cookbook called Plenty by Yotam Ottolenghi, I was excited to try the gorgeous cover recipe (who wouldn't, after seeing this photo?). I bought a couple of eggplants and set to work on the rather simple recipe. The results were beautiful, almost as lovely as the cover photo. They were also absolutely inedible. The note I put in my cookbook says, 'I roasted at 200F for, like, 12 hours [recipe suggests 35-40 minutes] and then at 350F for another 30 minutes. And then it was blecch.' We dumped most of it into the garbage. Mr Leaven nodded sagely - this only confirmed his belief that eggplants are the Devil's spawn.

Since then, I've read reviewers of Plenty singing the glories of this recipe, enough that I tried it again this month, on a night when there was marinated steak ready as a backup. This time, I chose slender Japanese eggplant from the farmer's market, hoping the Texas-sized ones we used last time were the problem. Plus, this time I waited till pomegranates were in season - last year I had to sub blackberries. And you know what? It was delicious. I cleaned my plate. Then I attacked the almost-uneaten plate of Mr Leaven. Oh well. He enjoyed his steak.

I'm going to make eggplant puree one of Little Leaven's first meals so maybe I'll have someone to share this stuff with eventually.

Eggplant with buttermilk sauce
from Plenty

2 large and long eggplants
1/3 c olive oil
1 1/2 tsp lemon thyme leaves, plus a few whole sprigs to garnish
Maldon sea salt and black pepper
1 pomegranate
1 tsp za'atar

9 Tbsp buttermilk
1/2 c Greek yogurt
1 1/2 Tbsp olive oil, plus a drizzle to finish
1 small garlic clove, crushed
pinch of salt

Preheat the oven to 200F. Cut the eggplants in half lengthways, cutting straight through the green stalk (the stalk is for the look; don't eat it). Use a small sharp knife to make three or four parallel incisions in the cut side of each eggplant half, without cutting through to the skin. Repeat at a 45-degree angle to get a diamond-shaped pattern.

Place the eggplant halves, cut-side up, on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Brush them with olive oil - keep on brushing until all the oil has been absorbed by the flesh. Sprinkle with the lemon thyme leaves and some salt and pepper. Roast for 35 to 40 minutes, at which point the flesh should be soft, flavorful and nicely browned. Remove from the oven and allow to cool down completely.

While the eggplants are in the oven, cut the pomegranate into two horizontally. Hold one half over a bowl, with the cut side against your palm, and use the back of a wooden spoon or a rolling pin to gently knock on the pomegranate skin. Continue beating with increasing power until the seeds start coming out naturally and falling through your fingers into the bowl. Once all are there, sift through the seeds to remove any bits of white skin or membrane [my note: while this technique is terrific for getting out the pomegranate seeds, I do recommend clearing a wide space around your bowl - my cookbook is speckled with little magenta dots from preparing this recipe].

To make the sauce, whisk together all of the ingredients. Taste for seasoning, then keep cold until needed.

To serve, spoon plenty of buttermilk sauce over the eggplant halved without covering the stalks. Sprinkle za'atar and plenty of pomegranate seeds on top and garnish with lemon thyme. Finish with a drizzle of olive oil.

BTW - don't get me wrong, when it comes to food preferences I'm the crazy picky one. I can certainly live with an eggplant-averse partner!


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