By Chloe Olewitz
Someone recently asked me how I got into food. She is a long-time friend of the family—the kind of loosely-related Italian auntie who holds out her hand to show how tall I was the last time she saw me, and no matter how recently she saw me I was always just at about knee-height. How did I get into food?
“Do you remember my grandmother?”
“Ma, si, of course.”
“That’s how I got into food.”
To anyone who knew my O’mama, there’s nothing left to be said. The kitchen was her domain. She was a master baker—she created a macaron-style cookie filled with mocha cream and edged with crushed walnuts, which she then sold to Neiman Marcus packaged as Chloe’s Delight in the early 90’s. O’mama was raised in Bucharest, fled the Nazi incursion in Romania, and lived in Tel Aviv, Paris, and São Paulo before raising my mother and my aunt in Northern California. By the time I was six, she had moved to New York.
To say we bonded was putting it lightly. Weekly sleepovers, minor celebrations, outings around town all revolved around food. She fed me calf’s brain at a Romanian restaurant in Queens and turned me into something of a caviar snob. We ate cookies in bed a lot. Romanian food is serious comfort eating, and the dishes are treasures I have a hard time picturing outside my grandmother’s kitchen: sarmale, cabbage rolls stuffed with minced beef or pork and wrapped with bacon; Ciorbă de perişoare, meatball soup; mămăligă cu brânză și smântănă, creamy polenta with cheese and sour cream.
O’mama is gone now, and I often find myself in the kitchen when I’m looking for a dose of her memory. When I moved into a new apartment in Brooklyn recently, I found myself searching for a little consolation in the form of food. What follows is the recipe my mother sent me for hand-chopped Salata de Vinete, a traditional Romanian eggplant spread. Think Baba Ghanoush but with an even stronger smokey flavor that turns into spice on the tongue.
I grew up watching my mother make her vinete in a food processor, but my grandmother chopped the eggplant by hand the way they still do in Romania. No equipment, no problem. This recipe is O’mama’s, remembered and interpreted by Mama, and seasoned by me. Three generations of hungry women who still find comfort in the dishes we stood on stools to watch our mothers and our grandmothers make in more kitchens than we can remember.
Pofta buna—bon appetit.
O’mama’s Salata de Vinete
Find two big, firm, shiny, light (in weight) and preferably female (with a dimple at the non-stem end) eggplants. Cut them in half lengthwise and put them cut side down on a baking sheet lined with foil for easy clean up.
Broil them about 30 minutes. The distinctive roasted scent comes from not taking them out too soon. You will smell when they are done.
Now work carefully because they will be hot. I use tongs. With a tablespoon, scoop out into a colander or sieve the innards which will be soft and come away from the skin easily. Gently scrape the skin to get every little bit. Sometimes the skin, if it’s thin, will already be in pieces when it comes out of the broiler. You work around that. And if there are black seeds (sometimes they are sort of lumped together) take those out too. You want to remain with roasted eggplant meat without burned skin or black seeds.
Turn the eggplant periodically as it cools to release more water. Let it sit at least 30 minutes so it cools and drains well.
Then the chopping! On a cutting board (wood is best) chop with a big knife. Just quickly chop chop chop as fast as you can. Speed only matters to get it over with, not for the result. It’s like the pace of the tail of a very happy puppy. Chop chop chop and move it around and chop more so all parts are chopped, this part and that, until it’s all like a purée. You’ll know.
I remember being in my room and hearing the chop chop chop chop from the kitchen.
Then into a bowl. Season with salt, pepper, a teaspoon of sour cream if you like to make it whiter, a whiff of garlic powder, olive oil a little. Serve with finely diced onion. Adorn with tomatoes. A drizzle of olive oil. Pofta buna!
Photos: Chia Messina