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Banging Out Baba

November 5, 2013

You know what’s great about getting to hang out with scientists and mathematicians? They tend to be a wee little bit on the obsessive side. Sometimes that obsessiveness can extend beyond their field of study and into their hobbies.

And some of them like to cook.

So early last month one such fellow, an Israeli who we’ll simply call R, was hosting a dinner party with his wife N. R was doing all of the cooking and he went all out. In these tiny apartments, and with limited cookware, he had produced a staggering number of dishes.

A few of us were gathered in the kitchen and the conversation turned to hummus. Hummus to R is a real big deal. But I along with another American confessed a greater love for baba ganoush. At this, R’s eyes lit up. He checked the oven and confirmed the chicken still had twenty minutes left to cook.

“Perfect, I have plenty of time to make a batch of baba ganoush.” And that changed my life.

No way. I had made baba ganoush before. It was a pain in the ass. I roasted the eggplant in the oven, and that took a while. Plus I had to haul out the food processor, which isn’t hard, but ends up producing a lot of parts that need to be washed.

R did none of these things.

As it turns out, he’s really honed his baba ganoush making skills and even has created a powerpoint presentation on how to make the dish. It’s fourteen pages and entitled, “The Complete guide to (Ba)2G (BaBa-Ganush).”

The presentation begins with an adapted quote from Wikipedia:

Baba ghanoush (Arabic ﻏﻧوج ﺑﺎﺑﺎ baba ganush) is an [east Mediterranean] dish of eggplants mashed and mixed with virgin olive oil and various seasonings. The Arabic term means “father of pestle” (“baba” means father and “ghanu[sh]” derives from “ghan”, stone for pressing [of] grains).

A popular preparation method is for the eggplant to be baked or broiled over an open flame before peeling, so that the pulp is soft and has a smoky taste. Often, it is eaten as a dip [with] pita bread, and is sometimes added to other dishes. It is usually of an earthy light-brown color. It is popular in [Lebanon, Syria, Israel, Jordan]…[and Egypt]…

The rest is really a photo essay of the process. But since eggplants vary so much in size, the recipe is more of a guideline than a hard and fast set of measurements.

Since seeing R make this on that fateful October night in under twenty minutes, I have easily made a half dozen batches. And my last version finally met with R’s seal of approval.

Part of the secret is putting the eggplant right on an open flame. Here in Princeton, we have a gas stove. I think when I get back to Albany, I may need to purchase a gas grill just so I can make this dish. Either that or perhaps I’ll be able to achieve similar results with a good blowtorch.

But with the burner on high, I rotate the eggplant with tongs about a quarter turn every four minutes, to char the skin and soften the flesh all the way around this nightshade. Yes, it makes a little bit of a mess, but it’s totally worth it for the critical smoky flavor.

The hard part isn’t so much scooping out the flesh as it is getting as much of the smoky membrane attached to the eggplant’s inner skin without getting any of the charred exterior bits.

Then it’s just one garlic clove crushed through a press, lemon juice (from about half of a large lemon), a lot of olive oil (R says, “6 spoons”), a lot of good tahini (again, “6 spoons”), and salt to taste. With all the ingredients sitting in a mixing bowl, it’s almost impossible to believe that a vigorous stirring with spoon will get all of those disparate elements to blend into a cohesive whole. But that’s exactly what happens.

Now taste.

You are looking for balance. Salt helps to counteract the bitter. You want a bit of bite from the garlic, but not too much. The tahini helps to soften the garlic bite. Lemon’s acidity tones down the salinity and cuts through some of the fat. Olive oil helps to give it a rich silky mouthfeel and carry more flavor.

This is a dish for tinkerers. And it’s amazingly delicious. Screw garlic breath, I’ve been eating this for breakfast on my toast. But it’s also possible that I have a baba problem.

I’m already on my second tub of tahini. Lemons and eggplant have become staple ingredients in the fussy household. And there is no way that the front right burner of my stove is ever going to get fully clean.

Now I can bang out a batch of baba with the best of them. So I’m feeling ready to try my hand at hummus. Although R doesn’t think I stand a chance at getting it right. But there’s nothing quite like a challenge to get me motivated.

Chickpeas, I’m coming for you.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. Rabbi Don Cashman permalink
    November 5, 2013 12:17 pm

    I’m with you on the BBG. On your cut and paste from Wikipedia, the two Arabic words are transposed to say (reading r-to-l) “ghanuj baba.” And how can you hang out your shingle as a food maven without a gas grill? Hope your time in Golus in going well.

  2. November 5, 2013 12:44 pm

    Did you intend to attach the good professor’s powerpoint? (That was a question.) Because it ain’t up there.

  3. November 5, 2013 12:59 pm

    Dammit, I want some. That stuff’s so yummy. But alas, we only have an electric stove (and aren’t allowed to have a grill or anything like that here).

  4. Doug permalink
    November 5, 2013 1:26 pm

    Yes, please, the powerpoint!

  5. November 5, 2013 2:49 pm

    I don’t remember where I read this, but apparently rubbing off the chickpea skins results in creamier hummus. Will you be removing the skins?

  6. abby permalink
    November 5, 2013 3:21 pm

    Guess we know what you will be bringing to Food Festival in Spring of 2014?

  7. Reba permalink
    November 7, 2013 2:00 pm

    Love making Baba Ganoush, thanks for the tips. I could see how leaving out the food processor could work easier, don’t know why I didn’t think of it before. I’ve had good results roasting the eggplant in the toaster oven quickly because it’s so close to the heating elements on both sides that it chars nicely but a grill is always preferable….

  8. Jamie permalink
    November 13, 2013 11:07 am

    I made this last night. Super easy, and amazing. We enjoyed it with a baguette from Placid and rapini. Oh my. Thanks for posting. Side note: I just had to have a few hunks of bread with butter (unsalted) and my friend had the most amazing fleur de sel, oh you were so right on that too.

  9. lakesider permalink
    July 10, 2014 9:47 pm

    Been thinking about attempting this since you first posted in November ’13. Now that you’ve revisited with your recent gas grill purchase, I have to ask: what is considered a “good brand” of tahini? I remember when I lived in NYC 25+ years ago there was a ? brown and beige can with a turbaned gentleman on the front, which was the brand all the falafel trucks were using. Can’t seem to find it in Price Chopper or Hannaford in my area. What do you use?

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