I had never tasted, and was totally unaware of, eggplant (one of the world’s healthiest fruits, well technically it’s a large berry), until I landed in the Middle East to live there in the late 60s. A few days after my arrival in Arad, Israel (a small village in the Negev Desert) a neighbor offered me a slice of warm pita bread and an Israeli dip made with roasted eggplant, tahini, and yogurt. “Yum,” I said, after my first bite, and reached out to sample it again, and again. I was hooked and asked for any and all eggplant recipes.
Years later while visiting the States, I went shopping for this royal purple, garden egg fruit. Not seeing it on display in the produce section, I asked for assistance. Forgetting the word for it in English, I asked for it using the Hebrew word —חָצִיל (hat-ze-leem). The produce man looked puzzled and asked me to describe it. I told him it was a fruit, eaten as a vegetable, sometimes substituted for meat, kind of egg shaped, with a heavenly purple, shiny skin. I then told him what it was called in French (aubergine), and in Spanish (berenjena). “Oh,” he said. “Eggplant!” and pointed to a display in a far corner of the produce section.
To this day, I still say חָצִיל (hat-ze-leem) in honor of my discovery of this amazing and delicious food—a must have in every Israeli or Middle Eastern meal. Back in the day, before ovens became a kitchen mainstay, many foods were cooked over an open flame. Gourmet chefs probably still stick a fork in the top end and slowly turn it until the skin is properly charred to give it a delicate smokey flavor. I find it equally delicious when roasted and charred in an oven. Over the years I have experimented with various eggplant recipes. Here’s one of my favorite.
Eggplant with Feta and Pine Nut Dip
Wash and dry two medium sized eggplants. Pierce both sides with a fork to vent, then place them on a lightly oiled (olive oil) baking sheet and broil or bake for 30-45 minutes (turning them once) until they are charred and soft to the touch.
Cool slightly and peel, carefully removing every bit of the scorched skin, Discard the charred skin. Cut in half lengthwise and scoop out the pulpy flesh and place in a bowl.
Crumble a big chunk (about 200 grams, 7 oz) of feta cheese into the bowl.
Add 1/4 cup olive oil
1 cup yogurt
1 T dried oregano leaves
3 chopped spring onions
1/2 cup pine nuts
… and anything else your heart desires or deserves. Stir to mix.
Serve with warm slices of pita bread.