eggplant. So when a couple of fat ones appeared in our CSA box, I automatically filled with dread. What on earth would I do with these ghastly vegetables (err, fruits)? After a bit of soul-searching, however, it dawned on me that eggplant actually stars in many of my favorite restaurant dishes – baba ghanoush, kashk-e bademjan, baklazhannaia ikra – all soft and smoky, and addictively delicious when smeared on warm bread. Now I'm kicking myself for wasting so many years not cooking eggplant at home.Related: Recipe Review: Roasted Eggplant Caviar from Good Food (Images: Emily Ho)
For this foray into eggplant cookery, I decided to try Russian-style ikra, also known as eggplant caviar or poor man's caviar, a velvety spread that can be eaten as an appetizer or side dish. My research turned up many recipe variations, most with tomatoes (fresh or canned) and some with onions, garlic, carrots, peppers, herbs, vinegar, or lemon juice. Rescuing me from overwhelm was my Aunt Margaret, who shared her own family recipe, which turns out to be one of the simplest of all. It beats any restaurant ikra I've tasted and is a new summer staple in my household.
My Aunt Margaret grew up in Los Angeles, the daughter of post-World War II Russian immigrants. She learned how to make eggplant ikra from her mom, who in turn learned it from her mother and other relatives. "Mom never had the luxury of getting 'precise' quantities," says Margaret, "but she watched many times how the dish was made, was able to reproduce it, and taught me by just showing me what needed to be done, how much of each ingredient was necessary – not forgetting of course the Taste Test! After a few shots at it, I got it down just like Mom's and Grandma's versions." Even though we aren't blood relatives, I'm endlessly grateful that Margaret shared this piece of her family heritage with me, and now you. 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!