by Louise Ayer
Food preparation is a shared joy in our family. Ramani and I have always shared a passion for the creation of healthy, delicious meals since we first met. We have passed this passion onto our daughter and son, Anjuli and Austin. This love of cooking is one of the most satisfying things we have handed down to our children. Ramani is a great cook in his own right. The only task that intimidates him is baking although he will knead dough, roll balls, or anything else I ask him to do. He finds something magical about the whole process of baking that he, a mere mortal, would not pretend to understand. As he was growing up, in his family kitchen they had a couple of propane burners, but no oven. A lot of delicious food was prepared on those two burners, but baking was not part of the cuisine at all. One of these days I will teach him. He is definitely curious.
We spend a lot of time talking about food from all different points of view, flavor, culture, technique, health and, as we have gotten older, what our bodies will tolerate. Ramani can’t tolerate spice as he could when he was younger, so some of our discussion is how to create flavor without heat.
Baingan Bharta is such a dish loaded with flavor but no heat. We discovered this eggplant dish in the 70’s, and it is a wonderful recipe for those of us, including me, who only like eggplant under certain specific circumstances. The eggplant is roasted under high temperature, until it becomes completely tender, then its nightshade skin is discarded. The luscious insides are mixed with sauteed onions, tomatoes and spices. The texture is smooth and silky. The flavor is slightly sweet, with none of that bitterness we often associate with eggplant, and mildly spicy. It is a prince of a dish.
The inspiration for this recipe comes from Time Life: Cooking of India.
1 or more eggplants weighing 2 pounds in total
4 medium-sized fresh, ripe tomatoes, washed, stemmed, and coarsely chopped
3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh coriander
2 teaspoons ground coriander
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon turmeric
¼ teaspoon ground red pepper (optional)
4 tablespoons ghee
1 teaspoon garlic, minced
1 tablespoon fresh ginger, minced
½ cup onions, cut in ½” dice
1 teaspoon garam masala
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
Preheat the oven to 400 F. Wash the eggplant, pat it dry, and cut a dozen ½-inch-deep and 1-inch-long, evenly spaced gashes in the skin. If you are using more than one eggplant, cut a dozen or so gashes in each of them. Place the eggplant in a shallow baking dish and bake it in the middle of the oven for 1 hour, or until the eggplant is very tender and almost falling apart.
Transfer the eggplant to a plate; while it is still warm, cut it lengthwise. With a spoon carefully scrape all of the pulp away from the skin. Discard the skin and chop the pulp coarsely. Combine the eggplant, tomatoes, 2 tablespoons of the fresh coriander, the ground coriander, cumin, turmeric and red pepper in a bowl, and stir the mixture until the ingredients are thoroughly blended.
In a heavy 10- to 12-inch skillet, heat the ghee over medium heat. Add the garlic and stir for 15 seconds. Add the ginger and stir for 15 seconds longer. Add the onions and, stirring them almost constantly, cook for 2 minutes, until they are soft and transparent but not brown. Add the eggplant mixture and continue to stir until most of the liquid in the pan evaporates and the mixture is thick enough to draw away from the sides and bottom of the pan in a solid mass. Add the garam masala, stir well, and taste for seasoning.
To serve, mound the Bharta on a heated platter or transfer it to a heated bowl. Sprinkle the top with the remaining tablespoon of fresh coriander and the lemon juice.
Serve with chapatis or flatbread.