Mention the avocado-toast craze to a French person and you’ll get a Gallic shrug. Although that shrug is generally a nuanced gesture with myriad meanings, the translation of the toast shrug is: What’s the big deal?
Long before hip, small-plates restaurants and hole-in-the-wall diners were topping toasts with smashed avocado, olive-oil drizzled ricotta, squash roasted with maple syrup or anything with tahini, the French were eating tartines. Like toasts, tartines are a one-slice affair, an open-faced sandwich, a single piece of bread that accepts everything as a topping including scrambled eggs, aged cheese and truffles. And yes, you can top a slab of country bread with avocado.
The other day in Paris, I topped my tartine with a type of eggplant caviar, the French name for a mash of eggplant, herbs and spices (like baba ghanouj). It wasn’t what I had set out to do, but having done it, I liked it so much that I did it again.
I had roasted two eggplants and set them aside to turn them into one of several mezze plates that I had planned to serve as the starter for a Mediterranean-inspired dinner. And then the dinner got canceled: I came down with la grippe (like everyone else). All bets were off.
All except whatever I was going to do with the eggplants, roasted, burnished, appropriately shriveled and resting in a speckled enamel pan. Doing my best to channel Yotam Ottolenghi, who makes miraculous things with eggplants, I created this silken spread, flavored with tahini (natch), pomegranate molasses (a new must-have in my house), ground sumac, onion and a hyper-generous amount of chopped ginger. To anyone who says that eggplant is undistinguished (the polite way to say that its flavor can be muddy), I say, taste this: The ginger is transformative.
As for the tartine, I built it from ingredients I’d intended to use for the ill-fated dinner. The base was a thick slice of olive-oil-moistened sourdough bread (thicker than most French people would consider for a tartine) and then, for surprise and crunch, some paper-thin slices of pear to support a hearty layer of the eggplant spread. I finished the dish with slivers of onions and radishes, pomegranate seeds and soft lettuce. It was gorgeous. It was delicious. It was more Israel than Eiffel Tower. It was a winner.
● Roast the sleek-skinned eggplants until they’re wrinkled and soft and sag in the center. Poke them in their bellies, and they should give way easily.
● A word from experience: You never know what you’re going to find when you slit open an eggplant. Lots of liquid? Drain it away. Lots of seeds? Get rid of them. Thick, stringy pieces of pulp that you know won’t mash smoothly? Snip them to size with kitchen scissors.
● Use a fork or a spoon to mix the add-ins with the eggplant; this is a very low-tech dish.
● Keep tasting. Keep tweaking. You might want more bright stuff in the mix; I always want more lemon juice.
● Choose a bread that will hold up under the weight of the ingredients. (If you’re in Paris, as I am, choose everyone’s favorite bread for tartine: Poilâne.) Tartines are usually as slender as French mannequins, but not this one: You want a thick slice. Brush it lightly with olive oil. (If you’d like to toast it, do so before oiling.)
● Build your tartine for taste, texture and beauty. Season the layers, if you think they need it, and finish the top with a flourish of small, colorful vegetables.
I like to think of the accompanying recipe as a rough construction plan, a sketch for a tartine you can play with. And when you’ve had your fun tartine-ing, just scrape the eggplant into a bowl, grab some crackers and call it a dip.
Greenspan will host her Just Ask Dorie chat from 1 to 2 p.m. on Wednesday: live.washingtonpost.com.
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Be sure to use thick slices of sturdy bread, toasted or not. The thin layer of sliced pear acts as a kind of moisture barrier. Dorie Greenspan likes the ginger to be coarsely chopped in this recipe, but you can of course grate it with a Microplane, if you prefer.
If you like garlic, see the VARIATION below.
MAKE AHEAD: The eggplant spread can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 3 days; its flavor may actually improve after a day’s chill.
From cookbook author Dorie Greenspan.
For the eggplant spread
3 1/2 pounds whole eggplants
1/4 cup tahini (stir well before measuring)
2 tablespoons pomegranate molasses
4 scallions or 1 spring onion, trimmed and thinly sliced (white and light-green parts)
2 tablespoons chopped cilantro and/or mint
1 to 2 tablespoons peeled, coarsely chopped fresh ginger root (from a 3-inch piece)
1/2 teaspoon ground sumac (optional)
Aleppo pepper or a smaller amount of ground cayenne pepper or crushed red pepper flakes
Tabasco or other hot sauce
Fine sea salt
For the tartine
4 thick slices country bread (toasted, if you’d like)
1 ripe pear, sliced very thinly (preferably using a mandoline)
Fresh lemon juice
4 scallions or 2 spring onions, trimmed and very thinly sliced
8 radishes, trimmed and very thinly sliced
A small handful of butter lettuce or arugula
Pomegranate seeds (arils; optional)
Fine sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
For the spread: Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil or a piece of parchment paper.
Rinse the eggplants and prick them in several places with the tip of a paring knife. Set them on the baking sheet and roast (middle rack) until they are so soft that they collapse on themselves, 40 to 60 minutes, depending on their size. Allow them to cool to warm or room temperature on the sheet.
Slit the eggplant(s). If the seeds are large and prominent, you can remove them. Scrape the flesh into a bowl and mash it with a fork; you should have at least 2 cups of pulp. (If the pieces of eggplant seem long and unwieldy, just cut them using scissors or a paring knife.) Stir in the tahini and pomegranate molasses; once they’re incorporated, mix in the scallions or spring onion, the cilantro and/or mint, ginger and ground sumac, if you’re using it.
Grate the zest of the lemon into the bowl, stir and then squeeze in the juice from about half of the lemon. Add a pinch or two of the Aleppo pepper, cayenne or crushed red pepper flakes, a couple of shakes of hot sauce, a little salt, and then taste. You’ll probably want more lemon juice, but you might want more of other things, as well, so tinker.
At this point, you can use the eggplant spread or transfer it to an airtight container and refrigerate it for up to 3 days.
To assemble the tartines, lay out the slices of bread. Brush the top of each one lightly with olive oil and season lightly with salt and pepper. Cover the bread with pear slices, overlapping the slices; sprinkle with lemon juice. Spread a thick layer of the eggplant over the pear layer, then finish the tartines with scatterings of scallions, radishes, greens and pomegranate seeds, if you’re using them.
Sprinkle with salt. Serve with a fork and sharp knife.
VARIATION: For more garlicky flavor in the eggplant spread, you can cut small slits in eggplants before roasting and insert slivers of garlic in them.
Nutrition | Per serving: 430 calories, 14 g protein, 78 g carbohydrates, 9 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 660 mg sodium, 17 g dietary fiber, 26 g sugar
Recipe tested by Anne DiGiulio; email questions to email@example.com