Greek Roasted Eggplant
Whole fish roasting on a charcoal grill might be the quintessential image of Greek summer cooking for many people, but for me the dish that best epitomizes that magical season comes from the garden, not the sea: flame-roasted eggplants mashed up with olive oil and a whole spectrum of ingredients that depend on the place and the proclivities of the person doing the mashing. The resulting melitzanosalata, or eggplant salad, can be served warm or chilled.
The eggplant is a versatile vegetable, a fact not lost on cooks in the eastern Mediterranean who prepare everything from pickled, stuffed eggplant meze (small portions of savory foods meant to be shared) to baby eggplant spoon sweets. But of the dozens of eggplant dishes in the Greek kitchen, melitzanosalata stands apart as a mirror of regionality displaying the ingenuity and skill of the cook.
My mentor in matters related to melitzanosalata is Soula Bozi, the author of several well-respected books on the Greek cuisine of her native Istanbul, a city the Greeks refer to as Poli (literally, “city”) or Constantinoupoli, after its original Byzantine name. In her apartment in Athens many years ago, she taught me to make what I have since dubbed “eggplant essence,” a very simple version of roasted eggplant puree that is preferred among Poli Greeks like Soula. It is nothing but flame-roasted eggplants (which she did on her kitchen burners) mashed by fork into a copious amount of olive oil, with a dash of sugar, salt, yogurt or lemon juice, the latter two added more for cosmetic than gustatory purposes. Poli Greeks do not appreciate the cardboard-brown color of pureed eggplant and the acid of either helps allay that dullness. The flavor and silky but chunky texture of this simple dish, so long as the main ingredient is in season, are so deeply satisfying that it could be described as umami. Politiki is the foundation upon which all other versions of Greek roasted eggplant salad do well to be built, because the smokiness derived from flame-roastinggives depth to the overall dish.
Some of my other favorite melitzanosalata hail from the kitchens of northern Greece. A Macedonian recipe calls for walnuts, which add a pleasing, if faint, bitterness and substance that counter the sweetness and soft texture of the eggplant. Another variation, also from the north, takes its name from the Holy Mountain (Mt. Athos, which in Greek is called Agion Oros). Agioritiko melitzanosalata contains chopped roasted red peppers, which are endemic to northern Greece, and a generous amount of garlic. In Tinos, an island in the Cyclades, local cooks toss chopped, roasted eggplant with olive oil, capers (a Cyclades staple), parsley and diced tomatoes.
Green peppers, feta and oregano are additions to the basic roasted eggplant served in tavernas all over Greece. Modern cooks have begun to use an ancient sweetener, petimezi, or grape must syrup, to balance the sometimes bitter flavor of the eggplant, which comes from the seeds. Balsamic vinegar is another popular, contemporary addition. Whether to keep the final dish chunky by mashing with a fork or pureeing in a food processor is a matter of personal preference.
When choosing eggplants, go for those with purple-black flesh, a round or oval shape and creamy white skin. Beware of over-sized eggplants, which have probably been over watered; they often have so many seeds they are a hassle to clean. Greeks don’t mind a few seeds in the final dish, but we do try to remove as many as possible.
Melitzanosalata makes a great addition to summer barbecues, pairing well with char-grilled meats and fish, especially sardines. It’s also a great filling for small tomatoes. If you want to follow another cue from the Poli Greeks, you can mix a little cream or bechamel into the roasted pureed eggplant and serve this with roasted meats or with aromatic stewed lamb and beef dishes. Roasted eggplant puree also makes a great filling for small tomatoes.
For 8 meze servings
- Wash the eggplants and pat dry. Place whole on a low open flame, either on the stovetop or on a barbecue over direct heat and roast, turning occasionally, until all sides are charred and soft. The best way to tell if the eggplant is done is to squeeze the densest part, near the stem; if this is soft, the eggplant is ready.
- Remove carefully with tongs and place in a bowl. Cover with a lid or plastic wrap and let the eggplants steam for about 10 minutes in their own heat.
- Add the olive oil to a separate, large bowl.
- Remove one eggplant at a time and place on a cutting board. Using a sharp paring knife, cut down the center of the eggplant lengthwise and open it up like a book. Score the flesh in criss-crossing lines, which helps facilitate the removal of the pulp. Using a tablespoon scoop out the pulp and place it in the bowl of olive oil. Continue with remaining eggplants.
- Mash and stir the eggplant-olive oil mixture with a fork, adding the yogurt and salt and sugar to taste. When the eggplant has absorbed all the olive oil, the melitzanosalata is ready.
Melitzanosalata Me Kapari Kai Kremmydia
(Roasted Eggplant Salad with Capers and Onions)
From “The Glorious Foods of Greece,” by Diane Kochilas (William Morrow, 2001)
For 6-8 meze servings
1 large firm tomato, skin and seeds removed and finely chopped
¼ cup finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar, or more to taste
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
- Wash and pat the eggplants dry. Roast them whole over an open flame on the stove or under the broiler, turning, until the skins are charred on all sides. (This may also be done on a barbecue.) Remove and cool slightly.
- Have a bowl ready with the olive oil. Cut the eggplants open lengthwise and remove as many of the seeds as possible. Scoop out the pulp and place it in the bowl with the olive oil. Salt lightly. With a fork and knife, cut the eggplant so that it is chunky. Add the onion, garlic, capers, tomato and parsley and mix with a fork to combine well. Add the vinegar, and adjust seasoning with additional salt, pepper and vinegar if desired.
Roasted Eggplant Salad with Feta and Herbs
From my forthcoming book, “Country Cooking of Greece” (Chronicle Books, 2012)
For 8-10 meze servings
Juice of 1 lemon
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 large red onion, finely chopped
2 medium green bell peppers, finely chopped
3 garlic cloves, minced
8 ounces (about 1½ cups) crumbled feta
Salt and pepper to taste
Pinch of cayenne to taste
- Wash and pat the eggplants dry. Keep stems intact.
- Roast the eggplants over an open flame or grill, either on a barbecue or under the broiler. Keep about 6 inches from heat source if grilling. Turn occasionally so that the eggplants roast evenly on all sides.
- When the skins have charred all around, remove to a bowl, cover with plastic wrap and let cool for a few minutes, until cool enough to handle. Using a sharp knife, cut the eggplant down the center and peel away the skin. Cut the pulp using a criss-crossing motion with a knife and remove the pulp to a bowl. As you do this, remove and discard as many seeds as possible without wasting too much of the pulp.
- Squeeze the lemon then the olive oil over the pulp and toss quickly. Do not mash the eggplant with a fork; just toss.
- Add the onion, peppers, garlic, feta and seasonings, toss to combine and serve.
Zester Daily contributor Diane Kochilas, the food columnist and restaurant critic for Greece’s largest newspaper, Ta Nea, is also a culinary teacher, restaurant consultant and award-winning cookbook author.
Photo: Eggplant filled with melitzanosalata.
Credit: Vassilis Stenos