August 22, 2010

Tahini 101 & Easy Eggplant

Having grown up eating all kinds of “middle-eastern” foods, whether they be Arabic, Lebanese, Mediterranean, Terrorist, or Turkish, I’ve learned a lot about tahini. Or tahine or tehina. I’m by no means an expert, but I’d like to share a little about what I know. Tahini paste is made of ground sesame seeds. The oil in it is naturally occurring as it comes from the sesame seeds.
In a Lebanese cookbook called Lebanese Cooking, I learned that there are two types of sesame paste.

There is a darker-colored one, sort of a latte color, which has a stronger, roasted, and usually more bitter flavor; the seeds were not hulled before grinding. This kind is often used in Chinese food (and perhaps other Asian cuisines). Then there is the one used for the tahini sauce (its namesake) which, for instance, felafel is dressed with. This has a lighter color and milder flavor; it’s made from hulled sesame seeds.

The latter is what I use for the sauce. If you make it with the other one, it may be passable, but the flavor and color will definitely be different from that delicious, creamy, white sauce.
To discern, the color differences can be subtle, and many times, the jar is not transparent. It can be tricky, which is why I have the darker one that I don’t use still sitting in my refrigerator. As I mentioned in the Tuna/Asian Slaw post, sesame oil typically needs to be refrigerated. Tahini, on the other hand, seems to be okay in the cabinet.

I keep it in the fridge because I think it’s better to be safe than sorry. There’s nothing worse than having the “aha!” moment, thinking that you already have an ingredient sitting around when you want to make something, then finding that it has gone bad. Then again, if you use it pretty often and your pantry or cupboard is cool/dry, it should be okay.

A large jar or tin of tahini paste goes from $4 to $6, although if it’s organic, it can be as high as $9. One jar lasts me about a year—unless you are making tahini sauce, hummus, and baba ganouj (both with various alternate spellings) often, in which case you may go through it much more quickly.

It’s a creamy, pourable sauce, salty and zingy (depending on how much garlic you use, and how spicy the garlic you’re using is) and slightly addictive. The sesame flavor is what makes it so unique though. It’s great on top of hummus, baba ganouj, and felafel, and countless other things, but can also be an extremely flavorful and healthy dipping sauce for crudites like celery, cucumber, broccoli, cauliflower, and carrot. It’s even good on fish.

Here’s my general recipe to make a small jarful:

4 tablespoons of tahini paste
2 large or 3 small cloves of garlic
Equal parts water (add more or less according to desired thickness)
2-3 tsp. sea salt
1 tbsp. lemon juice (I use lime because usually can’t find lemon)

Play with it, because everyone has different tastes. I love garlic and I love the zing it gives to tahini. I don’t like too much lemon juice because it blocks the other flavors for me. Depending on what it’s being used for, salt may be added or even left out completely.

I did this baked eggplant in the oven just to be able to use it. Very simple:
1. Preheat oven to 205 C/ 400 F.
2. Cut eggplant diagonally into ½ inch thick slices.
3. Grease a baking receptacle (I used pyrex) with olive oil—not extra virgin!
4. Brush eggplant liberally with olive oil.
5. Spinkle with Salt and Pepper.
6. Bake for about 35-40 minutes. Color should change, but skin should not be too hard or crispy.
7. Sprinkle with Hungarian paprika.
8. Pour tahini sauce over the eggplant. (or just dip those slices!)
9. Sprinkle with finely chopped PARSLEY.
(perhaps more than I did, so that people don’t assume that you’re unaware of its innate flavor and are just using it as garnish.)

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