Food for the Transition

Deconstructed Kashk-e Bademjan

mezze

On a Saturday afternoon just a few weeks ago, I left the gym and retreated to one of many neighborhood parks to sit on a bench under the sun with a good book. We have a lot of these little parks in my town. They’re just fenced-in grassy islands in the middle of residential streets. It was a hot, subliminally sunny day. I was already warm and dewy from my workout, but the light, and the knowledge that I had little time left with it, beckoned me to sit and absorb even more heat, for strength and nourishment. Once I did, I wanted to sit and sweat forever.

When I walked into the park, a radio played lackluster late 90s/early 2000s pop/rock songs from bands like 3 Doors Down, but the music was drowned out by laughter. There were folks in a small gathering with food on a table cloth–cloaked card table and beer and balloons.

“I say I’m turning 30 and people lift their eyebrows and sheepishly turn away—as if I’m just repulsively old,” a girl says.

“But see, you know, when you’re 40 now you’re 30 and so on; science keeps us younger now,” a woman in her 50s replies.

“I’m not so sure. If that’s true I should look 20. I do not look 20.”

We all fear transition, I thought

Sauteed eggplant

As I refocused on my reading, the sound of real silverware clanged against real China—how unusual to hear those notes at an outdoor party, where plastic is the norm. The sound delighted me. Only the best of friends and neighbors would use real flatware, I figured. Folks walked back and forth from a house down the street to grab chilled Heinekens at their leisure, returning with rapidly beading bottles. I heard them talk about the vast amount of food before them that they had only made a dent in, or that time this spring when the street lost power. It was a small-scale example of neighborhood community that I have little experience with, having hopped from apartment to apartment and house to house. Proximity breeds closeness, and summer facilitates these bonds.

And I started to cry. Me, stone-faced Sacha. Oh, how much joy is in the light! We’re usually happiest when we sweat: exercising, dancing, having sex, cooking a big meal in a steamy kitchen, or, like I was that day, just sitting under the early September sun. I wasn’t ready to let that warmth go. I hadn’t had my fill of those things this season, and I wanted to sit in that park forever. I hid my tear-dabbed cheeks with my book. I feared the months to come and how they’d neglect my body.

eggplant yogurt

What I feared that day in the park began to come true this past Tuesday night, as I walked home under a dim sky. Rain fell steadily, bouncing off the sidewalks and into the shoes of the unprepared. The side streets smelled like damp evergreen—not the clean pine of winter or the perfumed foliage of summer, but the dank smell of transition. Deluge came the next day to wash away light. Soon that sky will be midnight black when I walk home. Soon the air will turn from cool but soupy to cold and dry.

So far wet and dank, fall is typically just a blip—a transition to winter. But I still want to be in that park, with those strangers eating ripe melon and dipping chips into homemade tomato salsa. I’m not eating winter squash when I can still find summer squash at the farmers’ markets. I’m not abandoning stone fruit for apples—prune plums and grapes have become as much a sign of fall for me over the years as are pumpkins and gourds. Their freshness connects me still to moments like those in the park. Sugar-sweet heirloom cherry tomatoes, fuzzy peaches, crisp green beans—they’re all still on the menu. These are my small acts of rebellion. This eases me into the transition.

Mise en Place

Last weekend, I took advantage of the eggplant that’s still plentiful around here. Until there’s a frost, the eggplant will be fresh and meaty. I figured I must make kashk-e bademjan here, since I sang its praises in my labneh tart post. But it’s very unlike me to share established recipes as they’re intended to be, so I did not make the dish. I’m not ready for comfort food, so I deconstructed it, creating a filling and flavorful early fall side, starter, mezze plate, or vegetarian main; it’s highly versatile.

To make the mezze dip kashk-e bademjan, eggplant is roasted or stewed until soft and cooked further with fried caramelized onions (an ingredient that Iranians make in large batches and add to stews, soups, you name it), lots of garlic, turmeric, and sometimes tomato paste. The dip is served warm, topped with another common Iranian ingredient, dried mint cooked in oil; more crispy onions; and chopped walnuts, if you’re fancy. Finally, it’s drizzled with kashk, a cheesy-tasting fermented whey product that cuts through the warmth and richness with its cool, creamy unique tang. Eaten with lavash (or a spoon), it’s the best Iranian dish there is IMO.

caramelized onion
I used the same flavors, but this dish has a whole lot more texture. I sauté salted and pressed cubes of eggplant with the same flavorings (I choose to include a small dab of tomato paste because I feel the dish needs the subtle acidity) and top it with onions that I fry until dark, chewy, and sweet, with crisp edges, fried whole leaves of mint, and chopped toasted walnuts. In fact, everything gets cooked in that aromatic onion-infused oil once frying is done. The whole elegant (though, like many persian mezze-inspired items, difficult to make look good), thing sits on a generous bed of goat’s milk yogurt, which I use because the funky-tasting kashk is wildly hard for me to find (I do have a source), so I can’t be sure you’ll get your hands on it. If you do, however, please drizzle it on top!

I use food—produce, specifically—to comfort in times of change, seasonal or otherwise, and this dish pulled all the right strings: childhood nostalgia, summer memories, and fall beginnings. It’s hearty like a cold weather dish, yet it’s as fresh as the best summer vegetable dishes. Persian culture centers around community and sharing love with your neighbors in the form of food. Eating this, with its Persian flavors, I still feel close to that park and to those benevolent strangers, even as the air changes.

Deconstructed Kashk-e Bademjan
Serves 4-6

Using the onion frying oil infuses the whole dish with caramelized onion flavor. If you can find kashk, do not spoon it so generously on the plate but drizzle it on the dish.

2 pounds eggplant, cut into 1½-inch cubes
Kosher salt and pepper
2 teaspoons plus ½ cup vegetable oil
2 yellow onions, halved through root end and cut horizontally into ¼-inch-thick slices
¼ fresh mint leaves, plus 2 tablespoons minced mint
3 garlic cloves, finely minced
½ teaspoon tomato paste
¼ teaspoon turmeric
½ cup walnuts, toasted and chopped
Goat’s or sheep’s milk yogurt

1. Toss eggplant with 1 tablespoon salt in large bowl; transfer to colander and set colander over bowl. Let eggplant drain for 1 hour, tossing occasionally.

2. Meanwhile, heat 2 teaspoons oil in 12-inch sauté pan over medium heat. Add onions, season with salt, and stir to coat in oil. Reduce heat to medium-low, cover onions, and cook, stirring occasionally, until crisp-tender and turning transluscent. Transfer onions to paper towel–lined cutting board, spreading in single layer. Cover with double-layer of paper towels and press to pat dry. Meanwhile, heat remaining ½ oil in skillet over high heat. Add dried onions and cook without stirring until beginning to turn golden. Stir onions frequently until deep, caramelized brown, 15 to 20 minutes. Immediately strain onions through fine-mesh strainer set in bowl. Transfer onions to paper towel–lined platter; set aside cooking oil.

3. Heat 2 tablespoons reserved onion oil in now-empty skillet. Add mint and cook, stirring gently, until crispy, 30 seconds to 1 minute. Immediately transfer mint leaves to paper towel–lined plate

4. Rinse salted eggplant under cold running water. Transfer eggplant to triple layer of paper towels. Cover with another triple layer of paper towels. Press eggplant firmly and hold to release as much moisture from eggplant as possible. If you have patience, briefly squeeze each piece of eggplant in towels.

5. Heat 2½ tablespoons reserved onion oil in 12-inch nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add eggplant and cook until browned, about 3 minutes. Reduce heat to medium-low and cook, stirring occasionally until tender, 15 to 20 minutes. Push eggplant to sides of skillet. Add 1 teaspoon of reserved onion oil to clearing. Add garlic, tomato paste, and turmeric and cook until fragrant, about 20 second. Stir into eggplant until tomato paste is distributed. Off heat, stir in mint.

6. While eggplant is cooking, spread yogurt on platter or individual dish. Top yogurt with eggplant followed by walnuts, then onions, and, finally, fried mint. Serve immediately.

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