GBJ recipe challenge: Professor Rick Dunham shares his grandmother's delicious Russian eggplant dish
Everyone has a story.
The Global Business Journalism community spans more than 70 nations on six continents. It is a multicultural melange. We each have a pride in our home nations and an eagerness to learn about the way other people live. The cross-cultural exchange provided by the GBJ program at Tsinghua University – with the help of global partners Bloomberg News and the International Center for Journalists – makes this a unique English language master's program.
Which brings us to food. The Global Business Journalism community loves good fellowship and good food. In Beijing we sample the award-winning (and varied) food offerings on the Tsinghua campus, we explore the regional cuisines of China readily accessible in the nearby Wudaokou neighborhood, and we explore the international restaurants and cafés of Beixinqiao, Liangmaqiao, Sanlitun, Houhai, CBD or 798.
Food brings us together. That's why we've created the Global Business Journalism Recipe Challenge.
We're asking students, alumni, faculty and GBJ guest lecturers to share your favorite family recipe from your home country (or region, if you're from China). Remember to send photos, too. We'll post these as a series of articles on the website. Who knows? It might end up as a magazine or maybe even a GBJ-branded cookbook.
If you have a memorable story related to the favorite recipe, please include it. You can share the recipes to the Global Business Journalism Program Facebook page or email them to GBJprogram@gmail.com. Bon appétit!
By RICK DUNHAM
Global Business Journalism co-director
Like most Americans, I come from a mix of cultures. My father’s ancestors were British subjects from northern England and Scotland. My mother’s family emigrated in the early 20th century from the western fringe of the Russian Empire (known as the Pale of Settlement) in present-day Ukraine, Moldova and Belarus.
My family’s dinner choices reflected that cultural dichotomy: traditional Anglo-American dishes and a few Russian and Ashkenazi Jewish staples. As I grew up in the city of Philadelphia, the birthplace of American independence, I discovered that I preferred the more flavorful fare of small town Eastern Europe: cabbage rolls (golubtsi / Голубцы), stuffed peppers, chopped liver, borscht, buckwheat groats (kasha / гречневая каша), curd cheese pancakes (sirniki / сырники), potato latkes, whitefish salad, and matzo ball soup.
My favorite dish was one that my Grandmother Naomi served at parties: smoked eggplant dip. (The British prefer to use the French word “aubergine” for this pulpy purple plant.) We would eat Grandma Naomi’s finely chopped vegetable medley on crackers as an appetizer. But it can just as easily be consumed as a main course for any meal.
What makes this dish special? Its secret is the balance of flavors: eggplant broiled to smoky perfection, caramelized onions, a mixed grill of sweet peppers, fresh vine-ripened tomatoes and garlic cloves, and a few Eastern European spices sprinkled sparingly to add a dash of the old country. It is at once light and filling, and always satisfying.
My grandmother learned to cook this dish when she and my grandfather moved from the United States to Soviet Russia during the Great Depression of the 1930s. The Soviet Union was plagued by food shortages, and meat was almost impossible to find. But vegetables were more readily available, so produce like cabbage and eggplant became meat substitutes.
When my grandmother returned to the United States in 1938 – the year in which my mother was born – she continued to make her smoked eggplant dip. Grandma Naomi never used a recipe. She cooked it from memory. As she neared the age of 90 at the turn of this century, I asked her if I could watch as she created her specialty so I could write a recipe for posterity.
In the intervening years, I have added a couple of small optional “extras” to reflect the widespread availability of smoked paprika and Russian spice blends that were not readily found in the United States during my grandmother’s lifetime.
I still use Grandma Naomi’s treasured wooden chopping bowl to prepare this dish. The bowl, cracked decades ago in a way that reminds me of Philadelphia’s famous Liberty Bell, is older than I am. But its culinary magic will live forever.
GRANDMA NAOMI’S SMOKED EGGPLANT DIP
3 medium eggplants (long and narrow)
4 medium tomatoes, diced
1 bell pepper (green, red, yellow or orange), diced finely
2 medium sweet onions, diced finely
2 medium cloves of garlic, diced
2 teaspoons fresh parsley (can substitute dry if necessary)
3 teaspoons olive oil (can substitute other vegetable oil if necessary)
A pinch of salt
Spices to taste: Black pepper, smoked paprika, Russian seasoning mix (such as Penzey’s Tsar Dust Memories)
Crackers, pita chips, pita bread or toast to serve with the dip
This recipe makes four main courses or party appetizers for 12 to 20 people.
Preparation time: 20 minutes
Cooking time: About one hour
Cooling time: About one hour
Chopping, mixing time: About five minutes
Needed for preparation
1. A cutting board
2. Mixing bowls (a wooden bowl is better for mixing the cooked ingredients, but other bowls can be used if necessary)
3. Sauté pan
4. Oven with broiling capability (or you will need to bake the eggplant instead)
5. A tablespoon for separating the eggplant “meat” from its skin and for mixing
6. A mezzaluna for chopping the eggplant (forks, potato mashers or ricers can be used if necessary)
1. Broil the eggplants for 30 to 35 minutes at 260 degrees Celsius (500 degrees Fahrenheit), turning after 15 minutes. The eggplants should exude a smoky flavor, almost burned on the outside and soft inside. (If the eggplants are thicker, extend the broiling time to 40 minutes to ensure that they are soft throughout.) Let the broiled eggplants cool.
2. Sauté onions, peppers and garlic. Cook the onions first until they have begun to soften. Add the peppers and a pinch of salt. Cook until the onions are beginning to caramelize and the peppers are soft. Add the minced garlic and the fresh chopped tomatoes. Continue to cook until the mixture is soft throughout. Add fresh parsley (or dried) about two minutes before you are finished the sauté process. Let cool.
3. Put eggplant in the wooden bowl (or other chopping bowl). Separate the pulp (“meat”) from the skin with a tablespoon and discard the skin. Add the sautéed vegetable mix to the bowl. Add spices (black pepper, smoked paprika or Russian spice mix) to taste.
4. Use a mezzaluna or other chopping device (fork, potato masher or ricer) to finely chop the eggplant meat and the other vegetables. You should chop the mixture until there are no chunks remaining.
5. Mix with a spoon.
6. Serve as a dip with crackers, pita chips, pita bread or toast. Serve as a main course with Eastern European or Mediterranean accompaniments.
This dish can be served warm or chilled. Enjoy!