It's funny how we can maintain that we don't like a certain food, even as evidence mounts to the contrary. Me, I've had a lifelong aversion to 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.
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!
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)