This Eggplant with Tahini and Spiced Hazelnuts is a riff on a classic Middle Eastern recipe. You will often find roasted eggplant served with lemony, garlicky tahini and topped with chickpeas. Sometimes the eggplant is simply roasted in the oven. Other times it’s grilled over charcoal. The chickpeas can be stewed or they can be toasted. Either way, it’s a delicious paring and even more so when you’ve got the beautiful, silky tahini holding it all together.
The first time I made this dish I did it with chickpeas instead of the hazelnuts you see here. Partly because I LOVE chickpeas, but mostly because I was doing some R&D. Since chickpeas are a legume, they are neither paleo, nor Whole30 compliant. Legumes contain lectins, which can be problematic. Personally, I tend to avoid legumes on a regular basis. Believe it or not, legumes of all shapes and forms fall under the ol’ ‘Food without Brakes’ list for me. I can shovel down copious amounts of beans if I’m not careful and keep on coming back for more. I do, however, enjoy them on occasion and in this case I needed to figure out a way for everyone else to enjoy them without the IBS or other gut-related pleasantries.
I was racking my brain on how to modify this recipe so that it is both Paleo and Whole30 compliant. What could possibly replace chickpeas in terms of their shape, texture and flavour? Then, one fateful day, I was mindlessly fumbling my way through YouTube videos and saw a Bon Apétit episode on Mortar and Pestles of all things. Andy Baraghani was making a rustic Romesco sauce, which looked delicious. Quick tangent, I’ll share my insanely easy and delicious recipe for Sausage and Romesco in a day or two.
Anyways, in the video, Andy added hazelnuts to the Romesco, and they looked incredibly similar to chickpeas! Granted, they were peeled and their ivory interiors were revealed, unlike the skin-on ones I purchased from CostCo! It was at that point that a light bulb turned on in my tiny, little noggin and I thought, “Hey! Those would make a great substitute for that recipe I was losing my mind over!”.
Since hazelnuts are fairly tough, they need to be soaked in water overnight to introduce some moisture and soften a bit. They get really nice and plump, yet hold their shape perfectly. Soaking in water also allows the hazelnuts to stay moist while toasting in the hot oil and spices. Don’t get me wrong, if you don’t soak the nuts they will still be a beautiful and delicious topping over the roasted eggplant and tahini. However, they won’t necessarily give off the same flavour or texture as chickpeas. So, if it’s the legumes your after, be sure to soak your nuts!
As far as the eggplant goes, there are a few things to keep in mind:
- Pan-roasting: This is a great way to achieve amazing flavour and texture. Essentially, pan-roasting involves browning on the stovetop and then finishing it in the oven. In the case of the eggplant, you get a beautiful, golden brown, caramelized crust and super tender flesh. You can also grill the eggplant or even roast it whole, if you prefer.
- Drain the Eggplant of excess liquid: This is absolutely crucial if you do not want a bitter finished product. It’s a two-stage process if you are pan-roasting. First, you need to salt the eggplant flesh and rest it on a paper towel for at least 30min before cooking. You’ll notice some significant moisture release. Then, after cooking, it is important to get rid of as much of the rendered juices as possible. All those liquids that have been trapped in the eggplant are super bitter and unpleasant. If you are roasting the eggplant whole, simply drain the liquid after it is cooked.
- Avoid metal: eggplant and metal do not get along so do your best to avoid using metal colanders when draining the eggplants of their liquid. Instead, use a wooden carving board. My father taught me to prop up one side of the carving board onto a small, upside down bowl and have the other side of the board leaning over the edge of the sink. The liquid will run down the gradual slope directly into the sink.