Right, so I realize you packed up the trees and tinsel months ago. Us, too. But in our home, the end of December is really only the beginning.
Our Winter is sort of synonymous with Fest, with one party spilling on into the next. We start with a bang, lucky enough to celebrate two birthdays within days of Christmas. Then, there's New Year's, which is pretty staid, maybe puzzles and pizza and toothpicks for small eyelids, and two minutes of TV on either side of midnight. And new calendars. The most exciting bit, really.
What really keeps the celebration drum beating, though, is the everything thereafter. For there's a birthday three weeks into January, and another three weeks later, during February's first week. And then, exactly one week after that, V-day, heart day, cheap glorious chocolate day, take your pick.
(Me, I pick glitter day. There is glitter in the grout. Glitter between the floorboards. Glitter in the ancient basement cast iron sink. There is glitter enough that, were the space shuttle still circling, the crew could see New York, Chicago, and us. There are those who say February's a dark, dreary month. To them, I say: get a load of my laundry tub!)
And then, as an added bonus this year, we got Annette, all weekend long. Annette packs more party into 5'4" than does David Stark in his much-buzzed-about events. This does not include the toys she packs in every suitcase, which this time included one marshmallow crossbow, one marshmallow air pistol, and one large lights-and-sounds target.
Small pack of Jet-Puffed: $2.39. Marshmallow Crossbow: $18.05. Being a fly on the wall while Annette explained this particular set of carry-ons to TSA at Sea-Tac: Priceless.
What this means, practically speaking, is that our Winter is also celebration season. Yes, Winter's mittens and hats and floors, stained white with salt within moments of mopping.
But it's also planning and plotting and inviting. It's lantern-stringing and candle-lighting and excellent off-key singing. It's bright happy paper and gloppy glue sticks and food color used in untoward proportions. It is cupcakes in cones, and a stealth lemon cake, and confirmation that the extra curd and cream was extra nice. And that this remains, one year later, one heckuva cake. Ditto the kiddo. Keepers, both.
There are thank you notes yet to be written. The odd moustache, still on the wall. A few ROYGBIV balloons yet to contend with. (As for the birthday theme one freshly-minted five year old chose: three guesses, first two don't count.) But by and large, we're winding down.
We've packed up the doilies, pulled down the banners, returned the blackboard to black. My cuticles, if not quite white yet, are also no longer royal blue. Progress. This week, normal returns. It's been a grand ride. I'm ready.
(Well, normal save the lunches left behind yesterday morning. And the mittens, much-needed for a field trip. And the trash can lid that vanished in the night's storm. And the dryer drum, which, I discovered after breakfast, is completely coated in melted crayons. Crayons. Plural. Red and blue. As is every item of clothing therein. Who knew Crayola could do such damage?
Typical Tuesday, filling in for a Monday.)
Which brings me to something else we've been celebrating during this same dark, cold stretch: pomegranate season. And, before it leaves us entirely, I must must must must get this to you.
The "this" in question is the burnt eggplant with pomegranate, lemon and mint from Jerusalem. The breathlessness is because this much-ballyhooed recent title is all that, and then some. And then some more. (No, more. More, still. Getting warmer. How about just plain wonderful.) The urgency stems from the fact that pomegranate season's almost over. And the reason for my many "musts" is eggplant, pomegranate, lemon and mint.
Eggplant. Pomegranate. Lemon. Mint.
Together. In one bowl! Think about that. Exactly.
You begin with a base of burnt eggplant, a.k.a. eggplant brought to its smoky-sweet, supple, scoopable, silk-stockinged knees. After broiling your eggplant beyond recognition, you spoon out out its soft insides to strain an hour, and let loose any liquid that might tarnish bliss. The now-concentrated heap of smoked eggplant meat is then loosened up again, but this time, with dazzle. There's the juice and zest of one large plump lemon, plus the cool fresh of chopped mint. There's garlic, whose raw bite I don't favor, which I therefore warm in the accompanying olive oil. And there's pomegranate, seeds and syrup, the first stroke of brilliance all Ottolenghi and Tamimi, the second minor add, greedily mine.
The end result is extraordinary. Smart with lemon, bright with mint, softened and deepened by gently-garlicked oil, the smoked eggplant startles, just like that. Stir in the pomegranate syrup and seeds, and stand back. It stuns. The syrup, garnet, heady, treacled, adds a caramelized, concentrated thread throughout. And the seeds, how the seeds delight. Rubied, crisp, tart, they punctuate each bite, edible exclamation points. They pop on the tooth and sparkle on the tongue, like so much sweet caviar. Like glitter for the tastebuds. Like genius.
What to do with it, you say? Oh ho! Let the fun begin... It would sidle up next to a piece of fish nicely, halibut or cod, simply, expertly seared. Lamb, also, if you like lamb. Falafel, definitely, if you don't. I can see it piled high in warm pillowy pita, with leaves and sharp feta, or nothing at all. In my home, it began life as a pita chip dip, which we'd lay out with hummus, olives, cheese and veg, on our semi-regular chips and dip night. Highly recommended. Few things flatter a pita chip better, soft smoky sweet against salty crisp crunch. Pile it on as high as you can.
(No, of course I didn't push burnt eggplant on the pre-K birthday guests. We had rainbow goldfish, and rainbow fruit, and rainbow spaghetti. What else?)
Me, I couldn't pile it on high enough, and ended up inverting the equation. These days, I pile it into a bowl, and crumble a few pita chips on top for crunch. More eggplant fattoush, less dainty dip. More of the good stuff, eggplant, pomegranate, lemon, mint. More more more, before those pomegranates pack their bags. Because pomegranates remain, in my neck of the woods, one of the few foods MIA in the off-season. 'Tis their season, still. Tic-toc, tic-toc!
(What are you still doing here?)
Smoked Eggplant with Pomegranate, Lemon + Mint
adapted from Jerusalem, Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi
It isn't remotely eggplant season, of course, but worldly eggplant works fine in this context. Next fall, I intend to nail that narrow window when eggplant and pomegranate season coincide. There are many ways to seed pomegranates. My preferred method is dungeness-crab style: spread newspaper on the table, and go at it. For the clever water method, see here. Eggplant varies widely in size; I've used from 2-4 to yield the quantities called for. Use the weight and volume guides, to nail quantities, and simply adjust your seasonings to match your finished eggplant yield.
Please note eggplant needs at least one hour to drain. Eggplant can be roasted and drained 3-4 days in advance, and the dip mixed 24 hours in advance, with fresh herbs added at serving.
3-4 large, Italian globe eggplant (3-3 1/2 pounds total, uncooked weight; 2 1/2 cups cooked, after roasting and draining)
2 cloves garlic, minced
3-5 tablespoons olive oil, to taste
grated zest of 1 large plump lemon + 2 tablespoons juice, freshly squeezed
2 tablespoons flat-leaf parsley, chopped
4 tablespoons fresh mint, chopped
2 tablespoons pomegranate molasses
seeds of 1 large pomegranate (1 cup)
1 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
Burn eggplant: During the winter months, I burn eggplant under the broiler, as follows. For gas stovetop* and BBQ methods*, see below. Place rack 6" under element, preheat broiler, line a sheet pan with foil, and score eggplants with a few shallow, 3/4" slashes. Place eggplant on the foil-covered pan, then place pan in oven. Broil for 40-60 minutes, rotating each eggplant a quarter-turn once the exposed side has blackened and blistered, every 15-20 minutes. An exhaust fan comes in handy. Eggplants are done when all sides are black, burst in spots, and have collapsed. Err on the side of overdone. The flesh should be silky soft, the exterior, absolutely dreadful.
Allow smoked eggplant to cool enough to handle, then cut along one side, baked potato style. Spoon flesh from burnt skin (discard skin), place in a colander, and pull apart into slender threads, or snip roughly with clean shears. You are aiming for scoopable, bite-size bits. Drain at least an hour at room temperature, or up to overnight, in the refrigerator. (Smoked, drained eggplant can be refrigerated 3-4 days, at this point.)
When you are ready to mix your dip: Place 3 tablespoons' oil and minced garlic in a small skillet or saucepan, and place over a medium flame. Warm oil and garlic together, gently, until garlic is fragrant and faintly golden but not taking on any true color, 3-4 minutes. Place drained eggplant pulp in a medium bowl, and add lemon zest, juice, garlic and olive oil, 1 teaspoon salt, pomegranate molasses, and stir well to combine. Taste for seasoning, and add more olive oil, lemon juice, salt, and/or pomegranate molasses, to taste. Let marinate an hour, if you can stand it. (I often can't. It's awfully, awfully good, just-mixed.) When ready to serve, mix in the mint and parsley, and half the pomegranate seeds. Mix gently to combine, pile high on a plate, and scatter with the remaining rubied seeds.
This is brightest the day you make it, but holds very well several days.
*Alternate Methods to Burn Eggplant:
On a gas burner: line the stovetop with foil to catch drips, keeping only elements exposed. Turn heat to medium-high, and place eggplant on prongs, directly over flame, one eggplant per element. Roast 15-18 minutes, rotating every 5 minutes or so, when bottom has become blackened and blistered. Eggplant is done when interior is melting soft and the exterior can no longer hold together.
On the BBQ: see instructions (and another favorite burnt eggplant recipe) here.