In France, "caviar" doesn't just refer fish eggs. French Wikipedia says that apparently there's a law that defines caviar as only sturgeon eggs, and while it's true that the eggs of other fish as sold as such ("oeufs de lompe," "oeufs de saumon," etc.), there are plenty of tomato and eggplant and bell pepper caviars at the grocery store. And they're good, concentrated forms of each vegetable in spreadable form, not spiced but full of flavor.
It's caviar that, unless you're willing to shell out $65 per ounce of the real thing, is better than any of the lesser fish eggs. Plus I don't consider fish eggs vegetarian because the fish has to be killed so it can be cut open to get to the roe taken out, so eggplant caviar is an all-around winner.
Like most party food in this country, it costs 3-4€ for a 2-3 oz. container. If you have a lot of people over or just like serving heaping spoonfuls, you've got to have a real income to have enough money for that sort of luxury. (Hummus is the same, which is why I use my Liberal Arts College Skills and make it myself for a tenth the price.) Eggplant caviar is already pretty popular in France because it's glorified junkfood, chips and dip with class and health-food street cred, so it's a useful skill to crank out a kilo of it.
I don't know how many times I've made this last minute for a party or a dinner or a lunch where everything else seemed like it wouldn't be enough. The ingredients are common enough that we usually have them on hand and it only takes about 40 minutes to make, most of which is oven time.
What you need
- Eggplants. Quantities here are all just estimates since this is one of those things that you just feel your way through. I usually use three medium eggplants or two big ones.
More important is choosing good eggplants. Of course, you want it to be purple and not too beat up, firm and heavier than you think it would be when you pick it up, all the standard fruit-choosing advice. Eggplants that are longer instead of rounder, I've found, have more flavor. Sometimes when a fruit gets too fat it's just picking up more water, and since we're going for concentrated eggplant flavor, it won't work as well.
- Garlic, one clove for each medium eggplant and maybe an extra. It depends on how much you like garlic.
- Tomato paste, one heaping tablespoon or one of those little 1-2 oz. cans.
- Basil. I implore you to use fresh basil or at least frozen basil; dried and bottled herbs are for decorative purposes only.
- Cream. Normal cream or sour cream. Or yogurt. Or soy cream. Or coconut milk, even. Nothing with sugar in it and you'll be fine.
- Parmesan cheese, about three spoonfuls.
- Olive oil, red wine vinegar, salt, pepper, to taste.
What you should do
- Cut the eggplant in small cubes. Don't peel them - that adds to the color of the final product. And, as my grandmother used to tell me, that's where all the vitamins are! Don't throw away the peel!
- Peel the garlic and maybe cut it in half. Toss it with the eggplant, olive oil, salt, and pepper and put it all in a roasting pan.
- Put the whole thing in the oven and roast it at 375.
- Take it out every now and then and toss it if you weren't able to fit it all in one layer on the pan. It's done when some of the edges of the eggplant are turning a little black-ish and the faces of the cubes are brown and it's getting wrinkly, about 20-30 minutes (it all depends on what oven you're working with and how much eggplant you put in).
- Put it in the blender or food processor with all the other ingredients. Don't over-blend if you want it to be texturally interesting, although you can just go for it and make a thin puree, that's fine. Taste and adjust the level of salt and cream - what makes this recipe easy is that there's a wide margin of error. If it needs some sour, add in a little vinegar; if you used enough tomato paste and not too much oil it's unlikely to need any vinegar.
- Serve with bread, pretzels, toast (like bruschetta), vegetables like carrots and celery, or even those long Italian breadsticks if you're going for class here. Or you can toss it with pasta and make a meal of it.
If you don't have an oven or a blender, peel the eggplant (fuck vitamins), chop the garlic up small, and cook everything from step 2 in a pan on medium heat until it turns mushy and brown, then mix everything else in by hand. I've never tried it, but that's my guess as to how that'd work.
And there you have it, contemporary junk food that can be pretty healthy if you don't use too much cream and cheese.