I respect the ways of the ancients, but my adherence to tradition conflicts with my American tendency to tinker, like when I lived in Austin and married Lebanese and Texas ingredients in such dishes as smoked lamb enchiladas with spicy feta sauce.
Still, I have my limits. The word “hummus” is Arabic for chickpea, so when people make it with black beans or avocado or cannellini beans, I always think: That’s a dip — not hummus. (And don’t even get me started on what too often passes for tabbouleh.)
So I completely got it when my mom said that if she can’t smoke the eggplant over an open flame, she won’t make the baba ghanouj. I won’t, either, but that didn’t stop me from reinterpreting the dish. To be sure, I kept intact the basics: eggplant, lemon, garlic, tahini and, of course, the smoke. But I modernized the dish by taking a page from Dizengoff, a Philly restaurant modeled on the hummusiyas of Israel.
They make one hummus and offer it with different toppings, such as chicken almond and zucchini hazelnut. My mom had been doing something similar with hummus since I was a kid, so the idea wasn’t new to me. But the fact that a restaurant could be built around one dish with different toppings helped me bend, but not break, baba ghanouj.
To me, baba ghanouj should be the new hummus. It’s umami-rich, easy to make and fun to eat — and to say. The dish’s name is Arabic and seems to mean something like “pampered daddy,” although it’s unclear whether “baba,” a term of endearment for father, refers to a person or to the eggplant itself.
The dip is typically served with hummus, tabbouleh, fatoush and other small dishes as part of a meze selection. But for an easy weeknight dinner, it can stand alone as a starter, perhaps before a meal of grilled fish or kebabs.
With one exception, every version I made was traditional, because no matter how you trick something out, the basic thing itself must be great. I like mine with just a few flecks of crisped charred skin, so I set the purple eggplant directly onto the grill’s coals. When it was cool enough to handle, I split it open, scooped out the insides and made a dish that has been handed down for generations.
As is custom, I topped it with pomegranate seeds and a drizzle of olive oil. Then I made another, replacing the pomegranate with a traditional hummus topping of fried ground lamb, onions and pine nuts. The play of the seasoned meat and crunchy pine nuts against the velvety dip worked beautifully. To the next bowl, I added shaved fennel with grilled carrots for some crunch and sweetness to contrast with the dip’s richness. A sprinkling of fresh mint brightened the dip’s flavor. I made another topping of diced, charred bell peppers and za’atar. The result transformed the dip from something a little brooding to a zingy, exciting version of itself. In the one actual makeover, while keeping all the other ingredients intact (save for one less tablespoon of tahini), I added minced chipotle pepper. It expanded the smokiness and added an enticing fieriness. Cilantro and avocado oil completed the Southwestern change-up.
I invited my Arab American cousin, Kathy Brackett, and her Israeli Jewish husband, Yoram Tanay, over to taste-test all the versions. The two are phenomenal home cooks. Equally important, both are bluntly honest. Like me, they possess the immigrant’s reverence for tradition and the American’s penchant for re-creation. They had the knowledge to assess my creations — did the baba ghanouj itself taste like the best version of itself? — and the candor to tell me exactly what they thought of them.
As Yoram scooped up more dip with a piece of Kathy’s homemade pita, he said, through his thick Israeli accent and his signature smile, “This, Jim, is really good.”
I felt so gratified that, although it veers from the classic, I just might serve it someday to my mom.
Shahin is an associate professor of journalism at Syracuse University. He will join Wednesday’s Free Range chat at noon:
. Follow him on Twitter: @jimshahin.
6 servings (makes about 2½ cups)
See four VARIATIONS, below, that use this baba ghanouj as a base and are dinner-party worthy. And have plenty of olives, feta, scallions, good tomatoes and fresh pita on hand, for serving.
Unlike hummus, baba ghanouj need not be smooth. However, if you like yours pureed, use a food processor. You’ll need 1 cup of unsoaked wood chips or a couple of wood chunks, such as pecan, oak, hickory or cherry.
MAKE AHEAD: The grilled eggplant flesh can be refrigerated for a few days in advance; the baba ghanouj can be refrigerated for 3 days.
From Smoke Signals columnist Jim Shahin.
1 medium eggplant (about 1 pound)
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon coarse kosher salt
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice (from 1 lemon)
2 cloves garlic, minced
¼ cup tahini
1 heaping tablespoon fresh pomegranate seeds, for garnish (optional)
2 tablespoons chopped parsley, for garnish (optional)
Prepare the grill. If you are using a gas grill, turn the heat to high (500 degrees). Put the wood chips in a smoker box or foil packet poked with a few fork holes; set it between the grate and the briquettes, close to the flame. Once you see smoke, turn off the burners on one side.
If you are using a charcoal grill, light the charcoal or briquettes; when the briquettes are ready, distribute them on one side of the grill. For a high heat, you should be able to hold your hand 6 inches above the coals for 3 to 4 seconds. Scatter the wood chips or place the wood chunks on the coals, away from where you will place the eggplant. Have ready a spray water bottle for taming any flames.
While the coals are heating up, poke a few holes into the eggplant with a fork (about three pokes on each of the eggplant’s four sides). Use a teaspoon of the oil to coat the exterior, then season it with the salt.
Once the fire is ready, place the eggplant directly on the coals, or on the gas-grill grate directly over the heat. (The former gives you a crisper skin, which can be used in the dish for flavor and visual appeal. The latter may not crisp the skin quite so much, making it possibly unusable.) Cook, uncovered, for about 20 minutes, using tongs to turn the eggplant every 4 or 5 minutes until the skin is blackened and flaky and the flesh is soft, almost caving in on itself. Transfer to a cutting board to cool.
When the eggplant is cool enough to handle, cut off the stem end. Slice open the eggplant from top to bottom, laying it open flat, flesh sides up. Scrape out the flesh and about a teaspoon of any crisped, charred skin. (Do not include any skin if it’s mushy.)
Use a chef’s knife to mince the eggplant and any of that crisped skin, if using. Transfer to a mixing bowl; add the lemon juice, garlic, tahini and salt, stirring until just blended, with some texture.
To serve, drizzle with a little oil. Scatter the pomegranate seeds or parsley on top.
FOUR VARIATIONS: Toss together bite-size pieces of salted, charred/grilled young carrots, thinly shaved fennel (from 1 cored bulb) and a few tablespoons of chopped mint in a mixing bowl. Serve at the center of a bowl of Classic Baba Ghanouj, then drizzle extra-virgin olive oil and more chopped mint on top.
Blacken a mix of seeded and diced fresh peppers (such as a long, hot red pepper; a Fresno pepper; a small, hot green pepper and a jalapeño pepper) in a hot cast-iron skillet, then toss with za’atar and extra-virgin olive oil. Serve at the center of a bowl of Classic Baba Ghanouj and sprinkle more za’atar on the eggplant dip itself.
Combine a sauteed mixture of onion, ground lamb and spices (kosher salt, allspice, cinnamon, black pepper, crushed red pepper flakes) with chopped flat-leaf parsley and toasted pine nuts. Serve at the center of a bowl of Classic Baba Ghanouj, drizzling extra-virgin olive oil on top.
For chipotle and cilantro baba ghanouj, prepare the base recipe with 3 tablespoons of tahini instead of ¼ cup. To that, stir in a ½ to 1 minced chipotle in adobo (to taste). Drizzle a little toasted sesame oil or avocado oil and scatter chopped cilantro on top.
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