Margaret's ikra calls for just a handful of ingredients: eggplant, onions, tomato paste, oil, salt, and pepper. Roasting the eggplant transforms the texture from spongy to silky, and the smoky-sweet flavor melds perfectly with tender sautéed onions and umami-rich tomato paste. I tinkered with her method only slightly for the recipe below. (For example, I prefer olive oil, while she uses canola.) It makes about 3 cups, which seems like a lot until you start – and can't stop – eating it on everything from Russian rye bread to pita crackers, on sandwiches, with eggs for breakfast, and with pasta for dinner (add a little chopped parsley and cheese, if you wish). Yes, I think I can now say I love eggplant!
Sweet & Smoky Eggplant Spread (Baklazhannaia Ikra)
2 large eggplants (about 1 pound each)
Olive oil, vegetable oil, or canola oil for cooking
2 medium onions, chopped
3/4 cup (6 ounces) tomato paste
Freshly ground black pepper
Preheat oven to 350°F.
Prick the eggplants all over with a fork and place on a foil-lined baking sheet. Roast in the center of the oven, turning over once, until soft, about 1 hour.
Let the eggplants cool in a colander in the sink, where their juices can drain. When cool enough to handle, press any excess liquid out. (This step helps to reduce any bitterness.)
Meanwhile, heat 1/4 cup of oil in a skillet over medium heat. Cook the onions, stirring occasionally, until soft and translucent, about 20 minutes.
Cut the eggplants in half and scoop out the flesh. Discard the peel. Using a large knife, chop the flesh very finely. (Avoid using a food processor, as you want the eggplant to be more textured than a purée.)
Add the eggplant to the onions along with the tomato paste, 3/4 teaspoon salt, and a couple good cracks of black pepper. Turn the heat to low-medium and cook, stirring frequently, for 10-15 minutes. Add more oil as necessary to prevent the mixture from sticking to the pan. (Be liberal with the oil; any excess will rise to the top as the mixture cools, and you can remove it then, if you wish.)
Transfer the mixture to a heat-proof bowl and let it cool completely before storing in the refrigerator. Adjust salt and pepper to taste before serving.
(Images: Emily Ho)