Great Tahini Is the Star of This Roasted Eggplant and Lentil Dinner

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Great tahini sauce is the key to this dish. [Photographs: J. Kenji López-Alt]

This dish of eggplant roasted until caramelized and tender, served over stewed lentils with an extraordinarily light and creamy tahini sauce and crunchy pine nuts, was dinner and lunch for more meals than I care to count a couple of weeks back. Not that I'm complaining: It's extremely good.

I gotta admit, it was a little disappointing to see my book get eliminated from Food52's annual Piglet tournament of cookbooks in the quarterfinal round, but it was a loss made much sweeter by the fact that I was introduced to another book I would have never seen if it weren't for the competition. As soon as I read Phyllis Grant's breathless description of the tahini sauce recipe in Michael Solomonov's Zahav, I ordered the book without a second thought.

Oh, man, was it worth it.

I'd been experimenting with the treatment of chickpeas in hummus recipes for a while—stay tuned, the recipe is coming later this week—but I'd largely been ignoring what, for Israeli versions of hummus, is almost as important: the tahini.

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Solomonov's version begins by puréeing whole, unpeeled garlic cloves with lemon juice in a blender. You'd expect this to create an intensely pungent garlic flavor, yet, because the garlic is puréed in an acidic liquid, it forms very little of the nose-tickling garlicky compound known as allicin and instead ends up mild and fragrant. (More details on this process in the hummus examination coming up.)

The garlic and lemon mixture gets pushed through a fine-mesh strainer into a bowl. You whisk in some cumin and tahini, which immediately seizes up into a clumpy, cement-like paste. Don't worry: As you slowly whisk in cold water, the mixture transforms into a gloriously light and creamy sauce with the texture of yogurt and a savory nuttiness.

It's very rare that I'm completely satisfied with a technique the first time I try it, but after some serious tinkering with this one, I couldn't find any way to improve upon Solomonov's original. With the exception of a few minor changes in ratios, it's essentially step for step how he does it. It works wonders as an ingredient in dips, or, as I'm using it here, as a sauce for roasted eggplant.

Eggplant is an almost cliché ingredient in vegetarian and vegan dishes (think: grilled eggplant in place of burgers), but there's a good reason: It's incredibly tasty when cooked right.

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I like to treat my eggplant to some pretty intense heat, whether it's whole on the grill, placed directly over the gas flame of a burner until charred, or roasted. High heat rapidly evaporates its interior moisture, allowing the eggplant to compress and increase in density while also adding nice smokiness.

Roasting eggplants whole will yield meltingly tender flesh inside, but here I wanted something a little meatier. So I split them in half first and scored them to expose their flesh to more of the caramelizing heat of the oven.

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Eggplant is quite porous and will absorb a good amount of oil, so I brush it on pretty generously—at least a tablespoon per cut half—allowing each brushstroke of oil to soak into the flesh before brushing it on again. Oil not only adds rich texture and flavor (especially if it's a good-quality extra-virgin olive oil) but also ensures more even browning and heat distribution.

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I roast the eggplants in a hot oven with a few sprigs of rosemary for extra fragrance. (If you prefer thyme, oregano, parsley, or any other herb, really, there's nothing that should stop you.) When the eggplant is tender and caramelized, it's ready to serve. You could scoop out the flesh and whip it into a baba ganoush, but in this case, I like the fork-and-knife heartiness of serving it deconstructed, with the tahini sauce spooned over it.

To make it a complete meal, I pair it up with some lentils that are simply cooked with onions, carrots, celery, garlic, and bay leaves.

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Rosemary, parsley, and toasted pine nuts add freshness and texture. Like I said, I was a little bit bummed when I saw my book get bumped out, but it's really hard to get hung up in gray clouds when the silver linings are so darn delicious.