Every Saturday Mady and I get pita bread from the same Middle Eastern vendor at the farmer's market. The guys there know us now, and every time we go there they give us each a nice big falafel. Affi's Marin Gourmet has been around for over 25 years, and they have all kinds of deliciousness - hummus, baba ghannouge, falafel, sweet roasted garlic cloves that spread like butter over your cracker, and really really really good pita. No really, I don't know what they do to that pita. It's fluffy. Like, REALLY FLUFFY. Like a pillow.
My favorite spread though is the Aubergine. It's mesquite grilled eggplant, lots of roasted garlic, and olive oil. No tahini so the color is deep deep purple. And man, it is smoky and delicious.
One of the guys at Affi that hands out samples to the hordes of people at the Ferry Building on Saturdays has quite the personality. He's a big guy with a loud deep voice, proud of his product and happy to give out samples, but at the same time urging folks to consider making a purchase. I'll never forget asking him about how they make the Aubergine spread. I had heard about the magic that happens to an eggplant when you burn it over an open flame, how it makes the flesh soft and smoky and how it's the key to a really good baba gahannouge. I was excited about it.
I asked the guy, "So do you guys burn the eggplant for this dip?"
"OH WE BURN THE SHIT OUTTA THE EGGPLANT."
"Great, wow, good to know....what about garlic? Ya'll use a lot of garlic??"
"OH WE USE A SHIT-TON OF GARLIC."
Seriously, I'll never forget this guy handing out samples to innocent passerby as he answered me loudly, not even really looking at me but looking at the samples and the hands he was passing them to, just enthusiastically and explicitly telling me the secret to the Aubergine. Priceless.
Ever since then I've been waiting to burn the shit out of some eggplant. And this weekend, it happened. And it was good. I used Yotam Ottolenghi's eggplant risotto recipe as a base here, substituting farro instead of risotto rice and a parsley/mint mix instead of basil. As with most risottos, a lot of the flavor here comes from the vegetable stock, so use a good one. You can easily make your own vegetable stock by simmering a bunch of vegetables in a big pot of water with herbs and spices for about 45 minutes.
Now go set some eggplants on fire.
FARRO RISOTTO WITH BURNT EGGPLANT (adapted slightly from the Lemon and Eggplant Risotto in Yotam Ottolenghi's Plenty)
- 2-3 medium eggplants
- 1/2 cup plus 1 tbsp olive oil
- coarse sea salt
- 1 medium onion, finely chopped
- 2 garlic cloves, crushed
- 2 cups farro
- 1/2 cup dry vermouth or white wine
- roughly 7 cups hot vegetable stock
- grated zest of 1 lemon
- 2 tbsp lemon juice
- 1 1/2 tbsp butter
- 1/2 cup grated Parmesan
- black pepper
- 1/4 cup mint, chopped
- 1/4 cup parsley, chopped
Start by burning one of the eggplants. If you have a gas stovetop, line the area around the burners with foil to protect them. Put the eggplant directly on a moderate flame and roast for 12 to 15 minutes, turning frequently with metal tongs, until the flesh is soft and smoky and the skin is burnt all over. Keep an eye on them the whole time so they don't catch fire. For an electric stove, pierce the eggplants with a sharp knife in a few place, put them on a foil-lined tray, and place directly under a hot broiler for 1 hour, turning them a few times. Once ready, remove from the heat and make a long cut through the eggplant. Scoop out the soft flesh, avoiding the skin. Discard the skin, roughly chop the eggplant flesh, and set aside.
Cut the other eggplant into 1/2-inch dice. Heat up 1/3 cup of the olive oil in a fry pan and fry the eggplant in batches until golden and crisp. Transfer to a colander and sprinkle with salt. Leave to cool.
Put the onion and remaining oil in a heavy pan and fry slowly until soft and translucent. Add the garlic and cook for another 3 minutes. Turn up the heat and add the farro, stirring to coat it in the oil. Fry for 2 to 3 minutes. Add wine and cook for 2 to 3 minutes more, or until nearly evaporated. Turn the heat down to medium.
Now start adding the hot stock to the rice, beginning with two cups and adding a little bit more just before nearly all of the liquid has been absorbed by the farro. Keep adding stock a little bit at a time and stirring until the farro is cooked - it took about 30 minutes for me.
When the farro is cooked, remove the pan from heat. Add half the lemon zest, the lemon juice, burnt eggplant, butter, most of the parmesan and 3/4 teaspoon salt. Stir well, then cover and set aside for 5 minutes. Taste and add more salt/pepper if needed.
Top each serving of the risotto with the diced eggplant, the remaining Parmesan, the herbs, and the rest of the lemon zest.