As soon as I can cook outdoors free of toque and winter gloves, I get down to business. I love the ritual of lighting a chimney starter and waiting for the lump charcoal to get white hot. Once the fire is lit, everything gets a turn on the grill. This week, I’ve cooked small mountains of yellow squash and zucchini to toss in an anchovy-garlic bagna cauda sauce. And flowering broccoli, blanched first before grilling and serving atop Calabrian chile-laced Romesco sauce. My latest obsession is eggplant, big purple globes that puff up before sighing into submission, used for a dip that is deeply satisfying.
Look for firm, heavy, shiny eggplants free of blemishes. You can also try the smaller, fat Italian; striped Sicilian; or Japanese varieties, depending on availability. For this dip, I added in, last-minute, some chopped Medjool dates and found they offer nice texture and just a hint of sweetness. If you want a more substantial dish, consider including a half cup of toasted walnuts, almonds or tahini. For added crunch, scatter some chopped tomatoes, cucumbers and fresh mint or parsley leaves and a glug of good olive oil; I’ve been using a smoked olive oil from Spain that is now available at some of the local Carrs-Safeway stores. This could be the star of a first course, along with some fresh raw vegetables, olives, grilled bread and fresh feta or chunks of Parmesan cheese.
Grilled eggplant dip
Makes 6 to 8 servings as an appetizer
1 to 2 globe eggplants (1.5 to 2 pounds)
1 large lemon or 2 limes
2 spring onions
2 Medjool dates, pitted and coarsely chopped
1 to 2 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
Salt and freshly-ground black pepper, to taste
1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika
2 to 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Garnishes: chopped tomato; chopped cucumber; finishing salt; fresh mint or parsley leaves
Prepare a grill for medium-high heat; place whole eggplant on grill grate, and cook, turning occasionally, until skins are slightly blackened and flesh has collapsed, about 20 minutes. Add lemon to the grill, cut sides down and grill until slightly blackened and juicy. Alternatively, roast in a 400-degree oven until cooked through. Remove eggplant and lemon to rimmed baking sheet or large bowl and let cool.
When cool enough to handle, peel eggplant, discarding skin and stem. If very seedy, remove some of the seeds. Place eggplant and any juices in the bowl of a food processor. Add juice from the grilled lemon, spring onions, dates, garlic, 1/2 teaspoon fine salt and 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper and paprika. Pulse until just blended; you want to retain some of the eggplant’s texture. Slowly drizzle in olive oil and pulse a few more times. Scoop out into a serving bowl. Drizzle with more olive oil, if desired, and garnish with chopped tomato, cucumber, and some fresh herbs. Serve with grilled bread and some feta or chunks of Parmesan cheese. Leftovers can be stored, in an airtight container, in the refrigerator up to 3 days.