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Critical Mash

Messy pre-mix rituals make this golden eggplant salad a labor of love

May 14, 2000|Amelia Saltsman; Amelia Saltsman last wrote about pavlova.

Whenever my mother wants to show how much she loves me, she makes Romanian fire-roasted eggplant salad. It's not that the lemon-and-garlic-kissed mash is complicated. It's because she has to blister the deep purple orbs over the open flame of her stove until they weep and collapse. This makes a powerful mess.

She rightly insists that her technique preserves the color of the eggplant's pale gold interior and keeps flavors pure. She starts with a good globe eggplant, firm and heavy for its size--a sign it won't be full of seeds. Common black-skinned aubergines work fine, but the rosa bianca variety often found at farmers' markets has bright purple-and-white skin and unusually white, creamy-tasting flesh. Her fast, high-heat cooking prevents graying (eggplants discolor quickly, as apples do). She immediately scrapes the pulp from the charred skin and discards the brown juices. Then she vigorously mashes the pulp with a fork, whipping air into the mixture while preserving its toothsome texture. Brighter and lighter than its Lebanese cousin baba ghannouj, which is dusky with tahini, my mother's eggplant salad owes its Middle Eastern qualities to 300-some years of Turkish rule over her native Romania.

Mom must have "absorbed" her eggplant technique from her mother, because growing up she paid little attention to what was happening in the kitchen. The family's move from Romania to Israel in the '30s had little culinary significance for her--or the eggplant salad, other than the new climate, which provided a better supply of this voluptuous, heat-loving relative of tomatoes, potatoes, tobacco and deadly nightshade.

As you might guess, my mother hadn't a recipe to her name when she married. My parents soon immigrated to the United States, where eventually her childhood food memories began to surface. The eggplant salad was one of the first to work its way onto our 1950s American dinner table.

On a family visit to Israel as a child, I discovered more versions of the salad. Grandmother Mina divided still-warm eggplant pulp among several bowls set out on the ornate Romanian dining table, now outsized for her modest Safed hillside apartment. She stirred raw minced onions into one salad, mayonnaise into another and, my favorite, lemon and garlic into a third. Each variation accented a different quality of the eggplant.

Over the years, my mother made eggplant salad for birthday dinners or to celebrate when I came home from college. She'd prepare it a day ahead to give the flavors time to mellow and herself a chance to clean the stove. Recently, my mother tried to get away with baking the eggplant, even processing the pulp to a smooth pap. It was good, but it was gray. I chalk up this misguided attempt to expedience rather than a lessening of her love.

I must admit that I've taken a few shortcuts myself when making the salad, especially as the weather turns warm. Sometimes I roast the eggplant on the outdoor grill and simply let the mess burn off. Okay, so it's gray. I just hope my children don't take this the wrong way.

Mina's Flame-Roasted Eggplant Salad with Lemon and Garlic

Serves 4-6

2 large eggplants, about 1 pound each

4-6 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 teaspoon garlic, finely minced

Juice of 1/2 lemon

Salt to taste, about 1/2 teaspoon

Cucumber slices, tomato wedges for garnish

Pita wedges or crackers, optional

Place whole eggplants directly on gas stove burners. Roast over medium-high flame, turning often, until skins blacken and flake and eggplants collapse and are meltingly tender, 10-15 minutes. As eggplants start to char, skins will tear and release steam and juices. If skin burns too quickly before flesh gets tender, lower flame slightly.

Using tongs, remove each eggplant from flame to a plate. While still hot, split eggplant in half. Scoop pulp into strainer, scraping as much as possible from skin, leaving any juices behind. If there are a lot of large seeds, remove some and pick out any black bits of skin. Allow pulp to drain 10 minutes (discard juices) and place pulp in mixing bowl.

Mash eggplant with a fork using whisking motion, adding oil gradually until mixture is light and fluffy. Stir in garlic, lemon juice and salt to taste. Eggplant will be pale gold. Refrigerate until ready to serve. May be made a day ahead. Garnish and serve as salad or dip with pita, crackers or toast. Makes about two cups.

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