Smoked eggplant with sheep’s cheese and radish sprouts

Once so often you encounter a dish that’s really stellar and memorable. This eggplant was one such dish. The setting: A stormy winter night at a seaside restaurant. Low lighting. Dark decor with black leather chairs. An eye-level view of the raging Mediterranean sea, waves the height of a small house crashing high above our heads, stopped within inches of us by floor-to-ceiling panoramic windows. The pelting rain threatening to seep through gaps under the door and creep up our legs. A front-row view of the power of nature, at a safe but not-so-safe distance — waves had burst into that restaurant at the Tel Aviv port during a previous winter storm, sweeping away diners. The tables were laden with a dozen different dishes. I was late to the party, arriving in the middle of the appetizer course.

“You have to try this eggplant,” the birthday girl told me.

Now, fire-roasted eggplant is the type of thing that appears on nearly every restaurant menu around here. You can anticipate how it’ll show up — skin removed, top intact, drizzled with tahini and sometimes served with a side of lentils. Nice but predictable.

This eggplant was different. Admittedly your standard smoked eggplant at the base, but served with a topping of salty St. Maure cheese, a chopped tomato salsa and peppery sprouts, doused in olive oil. A simple but brilliant combination.

I don’t know about you, but once I encounter such an easy, successful combination of ingredients, I try to recreate it at home. But I hadn’t really been focusing on the ingredients as I dove into that eggplant — I was too busy enjoying the taste. Not to mention the table full of delicacies and the awe-inspiring power of the sea.

So six months later or so, at a whim, I decided to give that dish a go at home. I took a quick look at the restaurant’s menu: Eggplant topped with goat cheese, cherry tomatoes, basil and olive oil, said the description. Huh. Somewhat anticlimactic compared to my memory. (But aren’t the best memories always like that?)

So I gave a rough interpretation based on lingering memories of taste, coupled with ingredients I like to use — crumbled sheep’s Bulgarian cheese, finely chopped tomatoes, peppery radish sprouts and a generous swirl of olive oil. I served it in my sun-drenched living room, on a balmy summer weekend afternoon. And it was good. I wouldn’t say that it knocked my socks off — maybe it was missing the raging nighttime sea. But it was good nonetheless.

If you want to try the original: Boya, at the Tel Aviv port, not kosher, not overly vegetarian-friendly (vegetarian choices include a pasta dish, a pizza and several appetizers). Great view, though don’t expect to see any storms at this time of year.

For each eggplant:

1 medium-large eggplant
1 ripe tomato, chopped into small cubes
1/4 cup crumbled sheep Bulgarian or feta (rich, not-too-salty white cheese)
a handful of radish sprouts, coarse roots snipped off
olive oil for topping

Place the eggplant straight on an open fire such as a barbecue grill or a gas stove. Turn once or twice to char on all sides. The eggplant is done when it becomes slightly soft, and poking it with a utensil leaves an indentation.

Remove the eggplant to a strainer to cool and drain. Make one slice into the eggplant to help steam and moisture escape.

Once the eggplant is cool enough to handle, slice off the charred skin. This should be relatively easy. Leave the stem intact for show. The final result should be the stem with all the soft eggplant flesh still attached.

Lay the eggplant on a plate and fan out the flesh slightly, so you have about double the original surface area. Top with the chopped tomato and then the crumbled cheese. Arrange a pile of radish sprouts on top, and drizzle with olive oil.

Serve at room temperature, on a dark and stormy night (or whenever).

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