Normally, this is where I’d insert photo after photo of lovely ingredients.
Imagine then, the plump aubergine, the cream-colored garlic, the crisp onion. Imagine the anchovies, swimming eerily in olive oil. Imagine the cumin seeds, the sunny lemon, the putty-hued tahini, the jarring red of the tomato.
You’ll have to imagine these things because I was foolish enough to think that this thrown-together mess wouldn’t be worth mentioning. While running an errand yesterday afternoon, I realized that I hadn’t even thought about dinner yet. Not wanting to go out a second time for any ingredients, I quickly scanned my mental inventory of the refrigerator, and remembered the jar of tahini left over from these beauties.
Stopping in at the grocery store, and without really knowing why, I picked up one eggplant and one tomato. Something about the persistent (though lessening) chill in the air suggested something roasted. Eggplant seemed to match the tahini that nagged at me to be used; the tomato would lend freshness and acidity. Somehow.
Back home, I surveyed the refrigerator, pulling out anything that seemed like it would play nice. Out came the tahini. Out came a container of cooked brown rice. Three lonely anchovy fillets in a jar, risking expiration, joined in. There was an onion, chopped and frozen. Cloves of garlic and a naked, previously-zested lemon followed. And then I let them tell me what to do.
The eggplant demanded to be chopped, and roasted with the onion and the garlic. The few anchovies decided that the hot oven was far too much for them to handle, and asked to be melted into some sort of sauce. The tahini insisted on being used raw, with no heat applied, as did the tomato, while the rice politely offered to play a supporting role. From the spice cabinet, cumin seed, dried thyme, and oregano cried out to be used, and I was more than happy to accommodate them.
I knew I couldn’t exactly go wrong with roasted eggplant; but the scents wafting from the pan as the anchovies gently simmered with the cumin, mingling with the sweet smell of the caramelizing onion and eggplant, told me that I had something special on my hands.
But after tasting the finished sauce, the boldness of anchovy mixed with nutty tahini and vibrant lemon, punctuated with the smoke of cumin, and I knew I couldn’t keep this one to myself. With the somehow meaty flavor of the roasted eggplant, over a plate of brown rice, it was the best kind of simple dinner: the one you didn’t expect could possibly taste so incredibly good.
And then, I started kicking myself. Why, oh why, hadn’t I taken even one picture?
(Good thing there were leftovers for lunch today.)
This earthy mixture of roasted vegetables is extremely versatile. Serve it over rice, with a dollop of yogurt and a garnish of parsley, as pictured; serve it tossed with pasta and bits of salty feta; purée it and garnish with mint for a dip to go with toasted pita wedges; use it as is for a flavorful side dish with simply-prepared pork, fish, or chicken.
- 1 eggplant, cut into 1 inch cubes
- 1 medium onion, diced (about 1 cup)
- 5 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
- 2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
- 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
- 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 1 bay leaf
- Salt and black pepper, to taste
- 3 olive oil-packed anchovy fillets, with 1 tablespoon of the oil
- 1/2 teaspoon whole cumin
- 2 tablespoons well-stirred tahini
- 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
- Salt and black pepper (optional)
- 1 medium tomato, diced
1. Preheat the oven to 450º F. While the oven heats, prepare the vegetables.
2. Toss the eggplant, onion, and garlic together in a large roasting pan. Add 2 tablespoons of the olive oil, and toss to combine at once, before the eggplant soaks up the oil. Add the remaining tablespoon oil if the mixture looks very dry; do not be tempted to add any more than that, however. Add the thyme, oregano, cayenne, and bay leaf. Salt and pepper to taste, and toss until incorporated.
3. Roast the mixture at 450º F for 30 to 40 minutes, or until well-browned and very soft. Set aside to cool slightly.
4. While the vegetables cool, make the sauce. Heat the anchovies in their oil in a small pan over medium heat. When they begin to sizzle and break down, add the cumin and reduce the heat to low. Let cook until the cumin is fragrant, 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from the heat, and add the tahini. Stir until smooth, then stir in the lemon juice. Taste, and add salt and pepper if needed.
5. Pour the sauce over the roasted eggplant. Add the diced raw tomato, and toss. Serve warm, or at room temperature.