Israeli-born chef Alon Shaya, who with his wife Emily runs Denver’s hugely popular Safta restaurant, makes a mean hummus. It is highly regarded for its puffy pita which, like manna from heaven, appears at Safta’s tables uninvited and time after time.
But what he cooks best are memories.
“A lot of what you have (on the menu at Safta),” he said at a recent dinner there, “has sentimental value to me.” This is the recipe here for lutenitsa, a mixture of roasted eggplant, sweet red peppers and tomatoes often made by Mathilde, her grandmother (“safta”, in Hebrew). “The aroma of peppers and aubergines charred over an open flame,” writes Shaya in her 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, maybe give a twist, the simple things I used to eat when I was younger.
“Food is linked to memory,” he adds.
In her cooking, Shaya also inextricably links food with flavor. You’ll taste the wonder in a dish as simple as charred cabbage slow-cooked with olive oil, or the power of fire in muhammara, a pasty filling of air-roasted hazelnuts and chili oil. .
But what I appreciate most about each of Shaya’s recipes is how he cares about cooks who might follow her. Throughout the instructions there are little hints of kindness, as aids, as precautions, as tips. Use “a few big spoons.” . . if you are afraid of splashes”, for example, or “take some time here. . . it’s good to be thorough.
Excerpt from “Shaya”, by Alon Shaya (Borzoï, Alfred Knopf, 2018). “Intense yet simple,” Shaya writes, lutenitsa “takes me back to that early feeling of being so nurtured by visits from my grandparents. It really doesn’t require a lot of skill; patience – carefully charring the vegetables, then peeling them and cooking them slowly and gently into the most concentrated version of themselves – is more important than anything you could add. Eat this dish with bread or on its own. Makes about 2 cups.
- 4 red peppers
- 1 large eggplant (1 to 1 1/2 pounds)
- 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, divided
- 1/4 cup tomato paste
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 1 teaspoon Morton’s kosher salt
- 3/4 cup canned whole tomatoes with juice
- 2 tablespoons lightly packed fresh parsley leaves, chopped
Place the peppers on their side over high heat on the burners or broiler of a gas stove so that they are exposed directly to the flame (you can line the burners with aluminum foil to avoid any mess, and if you have one, use a small metal grate to keep the peppers from falling into the burner, so they char more evenly). Cook until this side is completely charred, 3 to 4 minutes, then turn; they are cooked when fully charred. Remove from heat and let cool.
Use a fork to prick the eggplant several times all over. It releases a good amount of liquid while cooking, so covering your burner with aluminum foil as mentioned above makes cleaning easier. 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 chunks of white Arctic char . Swirl and continue cooking until evenly charred – depending on your cooker, this usually takes about 45 minutes. It will be ugly and you will think you overcooked it. You didn’t. This is what gives it a ton of flavor and a creamy texture. Remove it from the heat and let it cool.
When the peppers are cool enough to handle, use wet fingers to rub all of their charred skin like paper. Resist the urge to run them under water in the sink; while this allows you to peel them faster, it also eliminates the smoky flavor you just created. Once the skins are removed, pull or cut the stems, cut the peppers in half lengthwise and scrape out all seeds and pith. Chop the peppers and set aside; you should have about 1 1⁄2 cups.
Cut the eggplants in half lengthwise and cut off the top. The inside should be creamy all the way to the center, but if not, you can finish the job by placing the halved eggplant at a 375 degree angle.
oven for 5-10 minutes. Using a spoon, gently scoop out the flesh, taking care not to drag too much charred skin, and set aside with the peppers; you should have about 3⁄4 cup.
Put a large skillet over medium heat and add 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Once hot, add the tomato paste and use a wooden spoon or spatula to break it up as much as you can, to create a grilled flavor.
Once the olive oil is orange and the tomato paste doesn’t smell so raw, add the garlic and cook until it starts to soften and smell good. Add roasted peppers, eggplant and salt, and stir to incorporate. Coarsely crush the canned tomatoes by hand, or chop them, then add them to the pan with their juices.
Reduce the heat to low and cook, uncovered, for about 1 hour. You want the mixture to really dry out, thicken, and collapse on itself. Stir occasionally to scrape up any brown bits and prevent the bottom of the pan from burning. It’s cooked when it tastes sweet and deeply caramelized. Set it aside and let it cool to room temperature. To serve: sprinkle with parsley and drizzle with the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil.
Contact Bill St John at firstname.lastname@example.org
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