The Israeli-born chef Alon Shaya who, along with his wife Emily, helms the wildly popular Denver restaurant Safta, makes a mean hummus. He’s much loved for his puffy pita that, like manna from heaven, appear at Safta’s tables unbidden and unceasingly.
But what he cooks best are memories.
“Lots of what you have (on the menu at Safta),” he said during a recent dinner there, “has sentimental value for me.” Such is the recipe here for lutenitsa, a mix of roasted eggplant, sweet red peppers and tomatoes often made by Matilda, his grandmother (“safta,” in Hebrew). The “aroma of peppers and eggplant charring over an open flame,” Shaya writes in his cookbook, “Shaya” (Borzoi, Alfred Knopf, 2018), “is what made me fall in love with food.”
“What we do (at Safta),” he says, “is re-imagine, perhaps make a twist on, the simple things I ate when I was younger.
“Food is tied to memory,” he adds.
In his cooking, Shaya inextricably ties food to flavor, too. You will taste wonder in a dish so simple as slow-cooked charred cabbage with olive oil, or the power of fire in muhammara, a paste-like garnish of toasted-into-air hazelnuts and chile oil.
But what I appreciate most about any one of Shaya’s recipes is how he cares for the cooks who might follow it. Throughout the directions are small soupçons of kindness, as aids, as precautions, as trucs. Use “a couple of large spoons . . . if you’re worried about splashing,” for example, or “take some time here . . . it’s good to be thorough.”
From “Shaya,” by Alon Shaya (Borzoi, Alfred Knopf, 2018). “Intense but simple,” Shaya writes, lutenitsa “takes me back to that early feeling of being so nourished by my grandparents’ visits. It really doesn’t require a lot of skill; patience–in thoroughly charring the vegetables, then peeling them and slowly, gently cooking them into the most concentrated version of themselves—is more important than anything else you could add. Eat this dish with bread or on its own.” Makes about 2 cups.
- 4 red bell peppers
- 1 large (1 to 1 1/2-pound) eggplant
- 4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
- 1/4 cup tomato paste
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 1 teaspoon Morton kosher salt
- 3/4 cup canned whole tomatoes with their juice
- 2 tablespoons lightly packed fresh parsley leaves, chopped
Set the peppers on their sides over high heat on a gas stovetop’s burners or grill so they’re exposed directly to the flame (you may want to line the burners with foil to prevent a mess, and if you’ve got one, use a small metal grate to keep the peppers from falling into the burner, so they char more evenly). Cook until that side is completely blackened, 3 -4 minutes, then rotate; they’re done when they’re charred black all over. Remove from the heat and set aside to cool.
Use a fork to prick the eggplant a few times all over. It gives off a fair amount of liquid as it cooks, so lining your burner with foil as mentioned above makes for easy cleanup. Lay the eggplant on its side over the burner, as you did with the peppers, and cook over medium-high heat until the bottom is blistered and blackened with bits of papery white char. Rotate and keep cooking until the whole thing is uniformly charred–depending on your stove, this usually takes about 45 minutes. It’ll be ugly, and you’ll think you overcooked it. You didn’t. This is what gives it a ton of flavor and a creamy texture. Remove it from heat and set aside to cool.
When the peppers are cool enough to handle, use wet fingers to rub off all their papery, charred skin. Resist the urge to run them under water in the sink; although that lets you peel them faster, it also rinses away the smoky flavor you just built. Once the skins are removed, pull or cut out the stems, halve the peppers lengthwise, and scrape out all the seeds and any pith. Chop the peppers and set them aside; you should have about 1 1⁄2 cups’ worth.
Halve the eggplant lengthwise and cut off the top. The inside should be creamy all the way to the center, but if it’s not, you can finish the job by placing the halved eggplant in a 375-degree
oven for 5-10 minutes. Use a spoon to scoop out the flesh gently, taking care not to bring too much charred skin with it, and set it aside with the peppers; you should have about 3⁄4 cup’s worth.
Set a large skillet over medium heat and add 2 tablespoons olive oil. Once it’s warm, add the tomato paste and use a wooden spoon or spatula to break it up as much as you can, to build a toasty flavor.
Once the olive oil is orange and the tomato paste doesn’t smell so raw, add the garlic and cook just until it starts to soften and smell great. Add the roasted peppers, eggplant, and the salt, and stir to incorporate. Roughly crush the canned tomatoes by hand, or chop them, then add them to the pan with their juice.
Reduce the heat to low, and cook, uncovered, for about 1 hour. You want the mixture really to dry out, thicken and kind of slump into itself. Stir it occasionally to scrape up the brown bits and prevent the bottom of the pan from burning. It’s done when it tastes sweet and deeply caramelized. Set it aside and cool to room temperature. To serve: scatter with parsley and drizzle on the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil.
Reach Bill St John at [email protected]
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