When the chef Alain Senderens died a while ago, Jackie and I were put in mind of our dinner at his long-gone Paris restaurant l’Archestrate. That would probably have been 35 years ago – the place closed in 1985 and is now the site of Alain Passard’s Arpège – but one dish on the menu stuck in my mind: Canard Apicius, a spectacular duck dish whose method of preparation and honey-spice glaze were intended to evoke the cookery of ancient Rome (sort of). I made a stripped-down version of it a few days ago, but today’s dish is a simple seasonal one I hit upon to accompany the duck: An aromatic and subtly flavored mush of eggplant (aubergine) reminiscent of Russian- or French-style eggplant caviar, but with softer flavors – including dates of all things – and a purer eggplant character. It almost goes without saying that it has many applications: It is grand with other poultry, and you can eat it on its own (warm or cold) with grilled bread, as a snack, a first course or part of a light lunch or dinner.
First you need to cook your eggplants, which can be done a couple of hours in advance if logistics dictate it. I cooked them in two stages. On a grid over the open flame of my gas range, I cooked plump medium-sized purple eggplants (an average of 10 ounces – 280 grams – apiece; figure one per person, or fewer if this is to be a side dish or dip/spread), turning several times, until the skin was blistered, somewhat charred and smelling pleasantly smoky. This took about six minutes over medium heat. I then cut them in half lengthwise, laid them cut side down on a parchment-paper-lined baking sheet generously drizzled with olive oil and put them into a 375º F (190º C) oven until very tender, about 15 or 20 minutes; start checking after 10 minutes. If you have an outdoor grill, all of this can take place there: grill over medium-high heat until charred, then, without halving, move to a cooler part of the grill and continue to cook until very, very tender.
While the eggplants were cooking, I softened the flavor of one medium-large clove of garlic per eggplant: I peeled them, cooked them in boiling water for half a minute, tossed the water and repeated this twice more. I then simmered them in salted water until they were very tender, which took a good ten minutes. This mild garlic provides a background flavor, not the front-and-center garlickiness that it would impose if left raw or sautéed. I pureed the garlic in a food processor with not too much olive oil; if you’re making a very small batch using one or two cloves of garlic, mash them with a fork.
When the eggplants were cool enough to handle, I scooped out all the soft flesh and added it to the food processor (along with the garlic if you’ve mashed it by hand). As I did this, I allowed – encouraged – flakes of the charred skin to fall into the pulp, because they add a very appealing smokiness even when the eggplants have been cooked indoors. This is a key element of the dish, so do not be hyper-careful when you scrape the flesh off the skin.
I added good wine vinegar, a scant half teaspoon per eggplant, and a little olive oil – say 2 teaspoons per eggplant or even less – and pulsed the food processor four or five times, until the eggplant had broken down into a mash – not a purée – in which ropy but tender fibers remained visible and palpable. (If, because of your particular eggplants, the mixture seems watery, boil off some of the water in a non-stick skillet, stirring constantly.) I transferred this to a bowl (in which the whole affair could have been made by hand) and stirred in a lot of chopped fresh mint leaves and some salt. When I tasted it, I found it needed a little more mint. If you can, resist the temptation to add more olive oil: when cooked this way, the eggplant flesh is moist and seemingly mucilaginous, so the unctuousness afforded by lots of oil is already there.
Finally – in the main innovation here – I stirred in corn-kernel-sized pieces of dates, figuring one medium-sized date per eggplant. I blanched and peeled mine before removing the pits and dicing them, which sounds fussy but which saves you from having to scrape sticky, paper-thin date skin from your teeth after eating.
That’s it. Eat tepid or at room temperature and marvel at the prominence of the eggplant and mint flavors and the little nuggets of sweetness from the dates.
(Why mint? And why dates? Because the fancy-restaurant accompaniment to canard Apicius included dates stuffed with a purée of dates and mint and warmed up in butter. That’s why.)