A recent article in Harvard Magazine suggests that Americans are less and less likely to prepare a home cooked meal. This is not exactly ground breaking news, but what’s interesting are the different factors at play and their confluence towards the same conclusion. It is not just the rise of celebrity chefs or molecular gastronomy, for instance, but also the expansion of restaurants and take-out options. With most households dependent on two incomes, time is at a premium, and the culinary labor of love is not exactly practical. Not surprisingly, home cooks are also becoming more intimidated by cooking. Shows like Iron Chef paved the way for what has become the latest trend in cooking entertainment. TV chefs are less educational, and more competitive, raising the stakes pretty high for the novice home cook who has less time and money to spare on this lost art. Clearly it has become more comfortable to be an arm chair chef, enjoying the razzle dazzle of the pros on the big screen while eating your take out of choice on a lap tray.
I related to this because there are many times that I have avoided cooking out of intimidation. I feel quite silly acknowledging it, since not only am I professionally trained, but also because it is absurd to think that something as innocuous as food can stir up feelings of fear. It is cliche, but true, that what we fear is actually the unknown. The areas of cooking that I am intimidated by are those that I have yet to understand or master. Often it is more convenient to just avoid it altogether, than to take the time to learn a new skill and risk failure before really mastering it.
Such was the case when I resolved to learn the ins and outs of smoking food. I had read many recipes and seen several shows but had never actually attempted to use an outdoor smoker. Finally after purchasing a large bag hickory wood chunks, studying and restudying the manual of a big green egg, I had my first go at it with a side of salmon. The first attempt was encouraging, but not ideal, and it took several more tries before I had sufficiently played around with heat and smoke control. Pretty soon, I was smoking everything I could get my hands on, from whole brisket to vegetables. The technique was relatively easy to get the hang of, and the results were impressive and mouthwatering.
While a full size smoker is preferable, your average outdoor grill can work in a pinch if you fit a smoking box on top of the heat source. I tried this method the other night while testing a new recipe for smoked baba ganoush. I cooked halved eggplant over low heat on the grill for about an hour. The inner flesh turned creamy and tender while the hickory infused a smoky flavor. I scooped the eggplant out of its skin and pureed it with plenty of garlic, tahini, olive oil and fresh lemon juice. I served the spread as an appetizer before dinner with friends and garnished it with vibrant smoked paprika. The unexpected hint of smoke added depth of flavor and enhanced the earthiness of the eggplant.
Wine Pairing: This dip paired beautifully with a full bodied, oaky California Chardonnay. One of my favorites is Nickel & Nickel, a producer out of Oakville, California.
Smoky Baba Ganoush
Recipe Note: Before proceeding with this recipe, you need a gas or charcoal grill fitted with a small wood chip box. These rectangular grill boxes can be found at most hardware stores. You will also need 1 cup of wood chunks or chips used for smoking. The chips should be soaked for at least 1 hour and then drained of any excess water.
3 medium size eggplant, halved lengthwise
2 cloves of garlic, roughly chopped
1/2 C tahini
juice of 1 lemon
extra virgin olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
smoked paprika for garnish
Preheat your grill to medium heat for ten minutes. Brush the eggplant with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Grease the grate of your grill then place the eggplant flat side up. Turn the flame down to low, cover and allow the eggplant to cook for one hour. Scrape the flesh of the eggplant out of the skin and puree with the remaining ingredients in a food processor. To serves, spoon some the baba ganoush in a small bowl and garnish with a pinch of the paprika and a drizzle of olive oil.