Monday, September 10, 2012

Melitzanes Tiganites a la Symeon's with Tzatsiki


Friends, let me tell you about the greatest restaurant in the world.  If you live near Yorkville, NY, you may not know how lucky you are, because Yorkville is home to a family-owned Greek restaurant called Symeon's.  I grew up going to eat there every time we visited my grandparents, and there developed at an early age my love for feta cheese, dolmades (stuffed grape leaves), spanakopita, and that baked chicken dish with all the cheese and spinach and lemon and pilaf - having a foodie fit now just thinking about it.  I don't know if every other Greek restaurant I've been to just can't match the real thing, or if Symeon's is actually better than the Greek food in Greece, but I would drive 5 hours just to eat there if I could.  On our way home from last year's Adirondack vacation we took a detour there for lunch and ate EVERYTHING.  Years of missing it and building it up did not diminish the deliciousness.


So I hope I've convinced you that if you live near there you should quit missing out and go eat it right now!! But if, like me, you are too far away, you can recreate my favorite Symeon's appetizer at home: spiced, crispy-fried eggplant chips, served hot and dipped in creamy tzatsiki.  This is a great dish to make between summer and fall- you can still get eggplants from the farmer's market while the getting's good, it's light (tasting!) and great finger food for end of summer parties, and it has warm fall-y spices.

I'm not a health nut per se- I like to make nutritious food, but I believe everything's good in moderation, and that definitely includes butter, sugar and carbs. But fried food is something I rarely eat. The flavor to stomach-havoc-wreaking ratio is usually just not good enough, even with foods I love like fish n chips and potato croquettes.  The less often I eat it, the less I can eat before feeling queasy.  My two exceptions to the rule are chicken katsu and melitzanes tiganites.

I did not like eggplant until I tried this dish, and it changed my mind in a big way.  Yes the crispiness helped, but what's so good is the way the spices complement the eggplant.  I have since spent years searching for the recipe, but Symeon's preparation is not the traditional melitzanes tiganites - the secret spices make all the difference.

Symeon's actually sells their spices online now.  I can't definitively confirm these are the ones used on their melitzanes tiganites (or their warm, soft pita- *Homer Simpson gurgle*) but they probably are.  I haven't ordered them because I achieved success with my home interpretation around the same time I discovered them for sale.

You should prepare the tzatsiki first because you want to eat the eggplant when it's fresh from the frying pan (or, you can skip ahead to slicing and salting the eggplant and prepare the tatziki while it drains.)

This tzatsiki recipe comes from The Complete Book of Greek Cooking by Rena Salaman and Jan Cutler.




one 6-inch piece of cucumber, peeled
7 oz plain Greek yogurt
1 or 2 garlic cloves, crushed (this time I took a shortcut and used garlic paste)
1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
2 tbsp thinly sliced fresh mint leaves, plus extra for garnish (I have also used dill, depending on my mood)
salt to taste (can't beat a sea salt grinder)


You'll see I have 0% fat yogurt here because it's the easiest to find... but I HIGHLY recommend full-fat for maximum deliciousness.  I think Fage is by far the best brand you can get in the US, its only equal being Whole Foods' 365 brand, but for some reason they don't always carry it around here.

(I'm making a double recipe in these pictures)





To prepare: Peel the cucumber, grate it coarsely into a colander, and press out most of the liquid.  Add the cucumber to the yogurt with the garlic, olive oil and mint. Stir in salt to taste, cover and chill.

A word of caution about the crushed garlic- add it a little at a time, stirring and tasting, because too much can give it quite a bite.




On to the Melitzanes Tiganites:



I generally make this spice blend by the witch's brew method - a dash of this, a pinch of that, a big heaping spoonful of the other thing - but I've tried to nail down the proportions here.  Of course, you can always adjust to what tastes best.

1-1/2 tsp paprika
1-1/2 tsp oregano
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp thyme
1/2 tsp parsley
1/2 tsp garlic powder
1/4 tsp allspice
1/4 tsp onion salt

Mix all spices together and grind in a mortar and pestle or pulse in a food processor to break up the larger leaf pieces.  Set aside.




for the batter, simply mix:
1 cup cold water
1 cup all purpose flour
1 egg













For frying: I recommend safflower oil. It's less heavy than most frying oils, has a high smoke point, and I find it makes for a lighter, less greasy tasting final product than vegetable oil.  I also use safflower for baking cakes and breads, and maybe I'm crazy but it seems to improve the texture over veggie oil.  It's not cheap though, so veggie oil will always do in a pinch.
 
I sliced these a little thick- still came out good though!


This warning may be unnecessary for people who actually have spatial reasoning, but when it comes to eggplants, think about what you're getting into.  You want to slice them as thin as possible to get a nice crispy chip.  I bought a giant 2 lb one the first time, and then I started slicing it and realized exactly how much eggplant surface area I was going to end up with.  Needless to say, it was way too much for me to eat.  So if you have a party planned, go nuts, but if not, maybe get a couple of the little guys.


About 40 minutes before you're going to fry, slice up your eggplant as thin as you can and, if necessary, cut down the slices to the desired size.  Lay the slices out and sprinkle salt over them to draw out some of the water, then stack them up in a colander and let drain for about 30 minutes.  I have one of those pasta strainers that hooks onto the faucet which is really convenient for this.  Before removing them from the colander, press down and try to squeeze out as much liquid as you can.  I also try to squeeze liquid from each piece with a paper towel before dunking in the batter- the less water on the surface, the better the batter sticks; the less water inside, the crispier it gets!


Heat enough oil to submerge slices in a deep frying pan on high for a minute or two.  Dunk eggplant slices in the batter and immediately transfer to the pan.  Flip after a minute or so with a pair of tongs.






 


Once both sides are golden brown, remove to a paper towel-covered plate. Immediately dab off excess oil with a paper towel and sprinkle liberally a pinch of salt, then with the spices - flip pieces and repeat.





Now you're set to dig into the tzatsiki and enjoy!  I have found that, as with many fried foods, there is just no good way to reheat these- I could not coax them back to crispiness in the toaster oven once it had been lost.  So make sure you can eat everything you make!



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