17 September 2012

Fear of a Food

Article and Photos by Elizabeth Miller, who blogs at Savory, Salty, Sweet which is featuring an awesome post about fries.

There are certain foods that seem to inspire what can only be classified as rancor. By this, I mean foods that, upon being mentioned, cause a malicious bitterness to permeate the general conversation. As long as I have noticed this trend in food refusal, there always seem to be three main foods whose very mention will bring out the venom in otherwise agreeable people: cilantro, beets, and eggplant.

The backlash against cilantro is perhaps the most fervent of the aforementioned oppositions. A couple of years ago, the New York Times ran an article about the animosity inspired by the herb, citing studies that suggested there might actually be a genetic predisposition to not being able to tolerate cilantro. As indicated by the over 500 comments left by readers who all seem to have very formed opinions, the debate about cilantro (tastes good, like citrus and licorice; tastes bad, like soap, bugs, and socks) does not seem likely to abate anytime soon.

Beets are another story entirely. When people—detractors and fans alike—discuss the attributes of beets, there tends to be one fact about the vegetable that remains consistent. If asked to describe the taste of a beet, most people will go with the adjective “earthy,” a description that is as solid as any I’ve heard. Where the fissure in the beet debate begins, however, is the point after this description where people are tasked with deciding whether or not “earthy” is a positive or a negative descriptor. To me, the earthiness of a beet is the very heart of its appeal. I use the flavor as a building block for other elements of a meal, thinking of ways to pair it with creamy, tangy, or sweet elements that will counter its robust notes. Other people, when faced with a food that, admittedly, tastes a bit like dirt, think better of the offering and turn their noses up in revulsion. I get it, really. This is being written by a person who hates the taste of all doughnuts, because they taste like doughnuts, and I cannot abide by that old, greasy flavor, no matter how ones attempts to dress it up.

Sometimes, however, dressing up a reviled food will do wonders for its appeal. In the case of eggplant, which I once heard a friend’s mother describe as “an old kitchen sponge masquerading as edible,” there are numerous ways that one is able to bathe the vegetable in other ingredients, making its often bitter, spongy reputation less of a concern. And if you want to forgo the somewhat troublesome texture of eggplant entirely, might I suggest a bit of roasting, a bit of pureeing, and a whole lot of bread for dipping? If you’re looking for a way to up the appeal of eggplant, spend a little time making a batch of baba ganoush, a Middle Eastern eggplant dish that is a distant cousin to hummus. Roasted until soft and smoky, the flesh of the eggplant is whirled into a smooth dip with garlic, lemon, and tahini. Drizzled with a bit of olive oil and tucked into with soft hunks of pita bread, it’ll go a long way towards erasing any eggplant woes you may have suffered in the past.

Baba Ganoush

2 medium eggplants

2 large garlic cloves, unpeeled

¼ cup tahini

juice of 1 large lemon

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling

sea salt

Preheat oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit. Pierce the skin of the eggplants in several places, then roast in the oven on a heavy baking sheet for 40 minutes, until the eggplants have become very soft and almost entirely collapsed. Arrange an oven rack to the highest level, turn the oven’s broiler to high, and toss the unpeeled garlic cloves onto the baking sheet with the eggplants. Finish roasting the eggplants with the garlic for 3-5 minutes under the broiler, until the eggplants’ skin is blackened and is starting to smoke. Remove the eggplants and garlic from the oven and allow to cool completely on the baking sheet.

When eggplants have cooled completely, scrape the soft flesh of the eggplants into a food processor. Peel the garlic cloves and add them to the eggplant. Pulse the food processor a couple of times to begin chopping up the eggplants and garlic, then add in the tahini, lemon juice, 1 tablespoon of olive oil, and a big pinch of sea salt. Puree the ingredients until they are super smooth. Taste for seasoning, and add more salt if you think it needs it.

Pour the baba ganoush into a bowl, drizzle with olive oil (and, if you wish, a sprinkle of chopped parsley), and serve.