Mutabal, a Smoky Eggplant Dip
I would like to share with you another delicious Middle Eastern dish that I learned from some Syrian friends, as well as my frequent travels to the Middle East, and it features eggplant! I laughed while reviewing one of my Middle Eastern cookbooks, titled 'The Book of New Israeli Food' by Janna Gur. It stated a common Arab adage that goes like this: "If your future bride can't make eggplant fifty different ways -- don't marry her!" I would certainly be flying solo if held to such plentiful expectations, BUT I can make THIS delicious eggplant dish (and even a handful of others 😉). This dish is called Mutabal (or Mutabbal or Moutabbal) and it is essentially charred eggplant with tahini. The flesh of the charred eggplant is mixed with lemon, garlic, tahini, and little olive oil to yield a silky, smoky mezze. This is often also referred to as Baba Ghanoush, although purists make distinctions between the two, stating that the latter incorporates additional ingredients like tomatoes, onions, other vegetables, pomegranate seeds, or walnuts. Additionally, while some "Arab food experts" insist that baba ghanoush DOES NOT contain tahini, others insist that it MUST contain tahini. All very controversial, and in keeping with the Middle Eastern harmony we have come to expect 🙄. I will call this dish Mutabal, as I know that that is a 'safe' term. Mutabal can be a stand-alone mezze, like hummus, or be served as a dip to accompany kebabs or lamb chops, or even mussakhan, among others. I have detailed all of these dishes in my previous blogs.
Smoke-infused eggplant is the defining feature of this dish. The smoky flavor is easily achieved by char-grilling the eggplants over an outdoor grill or open fire, or broiling them in the oven. Whichever way you prefer, it is important to let the skin of the eggplant completely blacken and the inside to become tender when pierced with a fork. Once charred and soft, remove from heat and let them cool before proceeding. The eggplant flesh, which will not be burned but will absorb a smoky flavor, can then be used in dips, stews, salads, or as a topping on bruschetta.
As I detailed in my Hummus blog, I make a Basic Tehina Sauce consisting of garlic, lemon juice, kosher salt, tehina, and a touch of cumin, as described by Michael Solomonov in his Zahav, A World of Israeli Cooking cookbook. I then simply mix the basic tehina sauce with the smoky, tender eggplant flesh in a bowl or food processor. It's that easy!! Place in serving dish, drizzle a little extra-virgin olive oil over the top, and then garnish with parsley or pomegranate seeds. Can be served with warm Lafah bread, pita bread, veggies, crackers, pretzel thins, or whichever vehicle you desire to transport as much delicious Mutabal to your mouth as possible. 😋😋😋
Basic Tehina Sauce Recipe
Ingredients: (Makes about 4 cups)
1 head of garlic
3/4 cup lemon juice (about 3 lemons)
1 1/2 tsp kosher salt
2 cups tehina
1/2 tsp ground cumin
Ice-cold water, as much as needed
Break the head of garlic into cloves. Place the unpeeled cloves into a blender or food processor. Add the lemon juice and 1/2 tsp of salt. Blend on high for a few seconds to form a coarse purée. Let this puréed mixture sit for 10 minutes to allow it time to mellow. (This is an important step so don't skip it!)
Pour the mixture through a fine-mesh sieve over a bowl, pressing the solids against the sieve to extract as much juice as possible. Discard the solids. Transfer the garlic-lemon juice to a food processor. Add the tehina to the garlic-lemon juice, along with the cumin and one tsp of salt.
Turn the food processor on low. This emulsion will likely begin to seize up as the oily tehina combines with the watery lemon juice. No problem! Just add ice cold water a little at a time, bit by bit, to the food processor until you have a smooth, creamy thick sauce. Taste and adjust with additional salt or cumin, to suit YOUR taste.
Prepare Smoke-scented Eggplant
Turn your outdoor grill on high. Wash eggplants well, then rub a bit of olive oil on the outside and pierce them a few times with a fork. Place them directly on the heated grill and let them roast, flipping them every now and then. Leave them on the grill until the eggplant skins are fully charred and the body feels soft and collapsible when checked with tongs.
Remove the eggplants from the grill and LET THEM COOL! Then slice them open along their sides and scoop out the cooked, tender flesh. Now combine the eggplant flesh with the Basic Tehina Sauce. Can simply mix together well with a wooden spoon or place into the food processer and pulse a few times to incorporate. If you prefer it chunky, then just pulse the mixture. If you prefer it smooth then process on a higher setting until your desired smoothness is achieved.
The ratio of eggplant to Basic Tehina sauce used can certainly be varied according to taste. I char-grilled two large eggplants and added 1 cup of the Basic Tehina Sauce. This resulted in a bowlful as shown below.
In the Middle East and in Mediterranean countries, eggplant is abundant and a very popular vegetable. Several different varieties can typically be found in their numerous fresh markets. It is incorporated into many dishes, hence the funny Arab adage ... 'If a future bride can't make at least 50 eggplant dishes, then don't marry her.' In the US, eggplant is much less common, more expensive, and fewer varieties tend to be available. But it is a wonderful addition to your repertoire. The silky texture combined with the sweet, yet subtly smoky, flavor is an elegant addition to YOUR mezze platter.