Eggplant and Yogurt Spread with Saffron
When Anissa Helou told me she was writing a book on the foods of the Islamic world, I was surprised, and a little curious. I didn’t know much about the food, but I am always drawn to the flavors, and ingredients used: Lots of vegetables, olive oil, pulses, grains, olives, spices, handmade cheeses and flatbreads, fresh fish, and grilled meats. In short, the kind of food I could live on, and sometimes, I do.
A few years ago, Anissa invited us to dinner in her loft when she was living in London, and started with a spectacular, but simple, puree of eggplant and labneb with orange saffron juice resting in pools over the top. I was familiar with Eggplant Caviar, Moutabal, and Baba Ganoush, but the idea of mixing eggplant with tangy fresh cheese was a revelation.
She gave me the recipe, which I’d planned to make since that evening, but it got buried in the bulging folder of recipes called “Recipes to Make” that’s part of a larger stack of folders in my kitchen, and office, that keeps growing and growing and growing.
So I was thrilled to find that Anissa included the recipe in her book, Feast: Food of the Islamic World, which prodded me to give it a go. The book itself is huge; over 500 pages, with a subject, and scope, that merits the heft. The book starts out with an eighty-page chapter on breads, everything from saj to Syrian fatayer, ovals of dough filled with cheese, parsley, and spinach.
There’s an Indonesian multilayered bread, called Martabak, filled with curried lamb and scallions, I’ve bookmarked because the idea of having a recipe for fried bread with a spiced lamb filling is too much to bear, and I need to make it. There’s a Baked Rice Cake with Lamb, from Iran, that features a very crusty exterior of crisp rice, enclosing a filling of tender, braised lamb. And I’m eyeing the Semolina Cake, called Basboussa in Egypt, which I think would be great with a juicy cherry compote or fresh summer fruits.
Even though some of the dishes are unfamiliar and may sound daunting, there are step-by-step photos of many of the preparations, to hold your (and my) hand, as we go.
The recipe also gave me the chance to finally crack open the saffron I got in Sicily. Real saffron anywhere is expensive, but there isn’t anything else like it. Using something else is like substituting nonfat milk for cream in a recipe; the extra expense is worth it. Fortunately, you don’t need a lot for this recipe, but saffron really does heighten everything it lands in, including this spread. A lovely Iranian woman gave me some saffron from her homeland a few years ago at a book event and it’s so precious to me that I keep it very well-hidden. (Come to think of it. Where did I put that?…)
Eggplant isn’t the prettiest thing to photograph, but when sautéed with good olive oil, onions, and garlic, it turns into something silky, and tasty, and works magically as a base for (and with) other flavors. And regarding olive oil, people forget that olive oil isn’t just something that keeps foods from sticking to the pan. It’s a flavor. I thought the original recipe in the book had too much, but corrected myself after I stirred in the eggplant when I was cooking it, and found that it was necessary for moisture, and – yes – for flavor, when I tasted it later.
A word about that labneh: The recipe is called Eggplant and Yogurt Spread (Borani-e Bâdenjân) by Anissa, and yogurt is the base for labneh. I tried it with Greek yogurt and it didn’t have the right assertive tanginess and texture to stand up to the eggplant. You can buy labneh at most Middle Eastern markets, but it’s incredibly simple to make your own – you basically strain plain yogurt for a few hours, or overnight, and that’s it.
Feast is one of the few books that, as soon as I arrived and I opened it, I sat down for a good thirty minutes just to read through it. It’s a wide-ranging book on a cuisine, and a culture, that are unfamiliar to many of us, and I’m looking forward to learning – and eating – more from it.