09 June 2012

Gypsy Kitchens: Salată de Vinete

In the rural town of Ieud, we stayed with two local schoolteachers.  Their house was on the edge of a meadow, we ate on a porch looking at wildflowers and old barns.  Over two nights, our hostess made us a staggering array of delicious food: green bean stew (thick with butter), honey cakes, carrot and potato patties, crepes, a soup of matzo-like dumplings, creamed peppers, candied plums, stewed cabbages, fried cheeses… everything, she said, was from their garden, everything was "very natural."  We ate until we couldn't anymore.
The star, though, was her homemade salată de vinete.  She scooped it out of an old canning jar and put it on the table with fresh bread.  We ate an embarrassing amount.  Something like baba ganoush, salată de vinete is what Romanians love to do with eggplant.  Creamy, smokey, lusciously textured, it's a dish that's hard to believe isn't full of mayonnaise or oil.  In fact, it's one of the richest-tasting healthy foods you can imagine - and it's about the simplest thing to prepare.
Salată de vinete doesn't have to be any more complicated than eggplant, cooked and skinned and mashed with salt.  In fact, the name means nothing more than "eggplant salad."  We decided to do it a little bit differently, though, to make the recipe worthwhile.  So, we added onion, garlic, dill and green olives, plus a little oil and white wine.  Throwing in just the dill and raw garlic would have been fine, or just the olives.  Paprika would also be a great addition, or another kind of chili powder.  Cumin could work, tahini would make it more like baba ganoush, lemon juice would have been excellent.  The idea is to use the eggplant as a base for some other flavors, and, really, whatever appeals to you would probably work.
What we did was simmer about half a yellow onion and three cloves garlic in a little white wine and oil until it was soft and the wine was almost gone.  This mixture got added, along with minced olive and de-stemmed fresh dill, to the mashed auborgine.  But lets not get ahead of ourselves - the main thing is to soften up the eggplants.
There is a strange myth about eggplants that they're hard to cook - some spook story handed down through generations of American cooks has frightened us all into thinking there's only one way to cook them (breaded and fried, smothered in a casserole, pressed and steamed, whatever your mother told you).  We can see and taste other results - meltingly soft roasted dishes, delicacies off the grill, baba ganoush - but aren't really sure how these things relate to the toughened rounds of flesh we're used to.  Well, stop being afraid.  It turns out that there is almost nothing easier to cook than an eggplant.
Start by preheating the oven to 350° F.  Then, turn on one of your gas burners and char the skin of your eggplants from tip to tip.  The fruits turn a sickly orange-purple, and blister a little, but they're pretty hardy.  Our stove also wasn't that powerful.  A fork helps, as they get pretty hot.  Don't worry about this process too much - it's more to give them a nice smokey flavor than to cook them.  Really, don't expect to blacken the skin - aim for a second degree burn.
We had fantasies of doing this over a grill or open fire, then cooking the eggplants wrapped in foil, tucked into the coals.  It'd work perfectly - humans haven't always had indoor ranges, after all.
When your fruits have a nice char, put them into some kind of coverable, oven safe container.  Prick them a few times with a fork, if you haven't already.  Cover them tightly and put in the oven for half an hour to an hour or until soft all the way through (don't worry, you'll be able to tell… they melt into puddles).
The nice thing is, it doesn't really matter how long you keep your auborgines in the oven, they really won't overcook.  When we made Imam Biyaldi in Istanbul, we simmered the pot for hours.  When they're soft, split open the skin (which will barely have enough tensile strength to hold together) and scoop out the watery, steaming innards.  Combine this glop with whatever else you'd like to add and mash until smooth.  We used a pair of kitchen shears to help things along.  If you have the luxury of owning a blender or food processor (our rental apartment wasn't well equipped), a few seconds of pulsing should result in something even more luxuriously smooth.
It may not seem believable, but the salată de vinete doesn't need anything other than salt.  It will taste oily and delicious without anything additional.  We added a little oil (about two teaspoons), plus our onion and garlic mixture, the olives and as much dill as we'd bought.  Let the mixture cool in the fridge at least an hour to bring out the full flavor, or serve warm - it's a hard thing to mess up!
(Throw the skins out, they're bitter.)
Salată de Vinete with Green Olives and Dill Recipe

Ingredients:
2 medium sized, ripe eggplants
1 small yellow onion, finely diced
3 cloves garlic, diced
4 tbsp. olive oil
1/4 cup white wine
1/3 cup green olives, pitted and chopped
Dill, de-stemmed
Salt

Method:
- Preheat oven to 350° F.
- Simmer onions and garlic in white wine and 2 tbspn. oil until softened and wine is almost all gone, about ten or fifteen minutes.  Remove from heat and set aside.
- Over an open gas burner, singe the skins of both eggplants from tip to tip, using a fork if your fingers get hot, working quickly and not burning the skin too badly (if your range is very powerful).  Put the fruits into an oven safe container, cover tightly and place in oven.  Cook until soft - between 1/2 and 2 hours, with about an hour being ideal.
- Remove eggplants from oven, split open skin and scrape flesh into a bowl.  Discard the skins.
- Add to the bowl the onion mixture, olives, remaining oil and dill and mash well, or use a food processor to make really smooth.
- Let mixture cool at least an hour in the refrigerator, then serve with bread, crackers, chips or spoons.
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