You’d think my most cherished vacation memories come from luxurious resorts. Magnificent destinations in the world’s greatest cities. Hotel rooms fit for a queen.
Actually, none of that holds true (and neither am I interested in that kind of travel, but that’s a story for another day).
My most vibrant and beautiful times spent away from home happened nowhere else than an hour-long train ride from door to door.
In the slightly dusty, artistically chaotic apartment of my aunt, to be precise.
It was an old building, ancient even. Old worldly, with wooden floors and the original stone sink in the kitchen. To have a relaxing hot shower, one had to light up the flame inside the rusty hot-water tank and ignore the dripping faucet right next to it.
You could positively smell the heavy history of the place, the long-forgotten souls who used to live there, their stories still whispering in the old masonry.
My uncle’s LPs were stacked everywhere, even next to the toilet. Which, by the way, was wallpapered with Greek Madonna pictures and comic strips featuring black humour, cut from old newspapers.
The juxtaposition of retro kitsch decor, working-class city building structures from the Belle Epoque and the inevitable bitter-sweet melancholy only creative artists emit – needless to say, it was my own personal heaven.
But the best part of my vacation days would often happen in the kitchen. Eating juicy, ripe mangos from the Pakistani shop around the corner. Making a mess with fresh pomegranate.
Cooking fragrant curries or simply eating almond butter by the spoonful – I was madly in love with the food coming out of a kitchen, a sweet little kitchen looking like a badly pieced together puzzle with its free-standing fridge, old gas stove and lopsided spice rack.
Mind you, now that I’m older my aunt keeps telling me how she thinks she wasn’t a well-versed cook and never knew what to make. Had she not told me, I’d never even have thought about it.
Whatever she made was ambrosia to both my palate and my little soul.
And their left-wing dining table, laid with feminist boob-printed plates and stacked with Rolling Stone magazines, the wall behind it adorned with spaghetti nobody cared to clean up after a, dare I say it? – food fight, was the place where I indulged in specialty foods like sweet Iranian dates, fragrant spices and expensive dried mango.
Exploring multiculturalism, experiencing diversity through food is something I benefitted incredibly from growing up, and it is something I strive for sharing with my daughters every single day.
In times such as the current I strongly believe in fostering curiosity and acceptance in our children towards other-ness. Which is about 50% of the reason why we happily cook dishes from a variety of cultures.
The other 50%? I get bored easily, so doing the same thing over and over again… It’s tedious to my mind. Culture is what makes life exciting, and in no place more so than the kitchen.
I’m a long-standing fan of Ottolenghi. This is his method for roasting eggplant, and it is so perfect, not even rebellious me was tempted to change a thing about it.
That was a lie, of course I changed something about it.
I nicked Yotam’s way of cutting the flesh of the aubergine cross-wise, it makes for pretty photography and a good roast. It is also both his (notably high) baking temperature and duration.
But I went ahead and stuffed the incisions with fragrant herbs and garlic to add a little extra oomph to this gorgeous vegetable dish.
It is not particularly original or creative to serve feta cheese, pomegranate and mint with a Middle Eastern inspired dish. I’m aware.
But they are flavors that work exceptionally well with the depth of the roasted aubergine and, as they say, never change a winning team.
I wanted this to be a truly vegetarian meal, not just a side dish with the meat removed, which is why I added the legumes. You could still easily add some grilled meat or use it as a starter for an ethnic dinner party.
We enjoy it as a light meal with the Za’atar spiced white bean hummus serving as our main protein source, maybe with some pita bread and a crunchy salad or even a couscous salad on the side.
It is up to you to add some heat to the dish, we usually don’t because I can’t keep Lulu’s hands out of anything edible.
In any case, I’m hoping this meal will give your mind an opportunity to travel, a magical retreat into the far beyond lands of your imagineation, if you will. It certainly takes me back to my childhood memories and to the dusty smell of an old apartment laden with the richest of stories.
Middle Eastern Roasted Eggplant with White Bean Hummus
For the eggplant:
- 2 large eggplants
- 4 garlic cloves peeled and sliced
- fresh rosemary and thyme sprigs
- olive oil
- salt + pepper
For the hummus:
- 1 can white beans rinsed and drained
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- 1 tbsp Za'atar
- fresh lemon juice, salt & pepper to taste
To finish the dish:
- 2 oz crumbled feta cheese
- arils from 1/2 a pomegranate
- fresh mint and parsley leaves
- extra Za'atar
Make the aubergine:
- Heat the oven to 450°F (230°C). Halve the aubergines lengthwise (it is fine to leave the green top on for looks, however don't eat it) and cut the flesh in a criss-cross pattern.
- Place the aubergine halves in a roasting pan and stuff the incisions with the garlic and herbs. Drizzle generously with olive oil and season well with salt and pepper. Bake for 40 minutes or until soft.
Make the white bean hummus:
- Blend the white beans with olive oil and za'atar until you have a consistency you like (both chunky or smooth works well). Season with lemon juice, salt & pepper.
Finish the dish:
- Remove the herbs from the baked eggplant. Serve topped with feta, pomegranate, mint and parsley over the white bean hummus. Pass extra Za'atar for sprinkling at the table.