Purple is the color of royalty, and the Lebanese bow down to eggplant accordingly, making it the crowned prince of many succulent dishes. Though it always tastes wonderful, cooked eggplant often becomes something far less than royal in its looks. But thickly sliced eggplant brushed with a glossy pomegranate olive oil coating and broiled brings out an alluring, mouthwatering shade of mahogany. Top that deep golden brown with snow-white labneh and ruby-red pomegranate seeds, and we’re back on the throne again, both in looks and taste. Choose firm, heavy eggplant without a hint of give when squeezed.
Line a rimmed sheet pan with parchment paper. Place an oven rack on the second shelf from the top, for broiling. In a small bowl, whisk the olive oil and pomegranate molasses to fully blend and emulsify the mixture. Cut off the stem and bottom of the eggplant, leaving the skin on. Cut the eggplant in half crosswise.
Turn the eggplant halves flat-side down, and slice them lengthwise into 2-inch- / 5 cm thick wedges, about eight in total. For the end slices that are mostly skin, trim away most of the skin. Place the eggplant slices on the prepared sheet pan, tucking them close together if needed. Coat both sides of the eggplant slices with the olive oil–pomegranate molasses mixture. Sprinkle both sides lightly with salt. Broil the eggplant under a high broiler until the slices are deep mahogany brown, using a spatula to gently flip the now-fragile eggplant, about 8 minutes on the first side and 5 minutes on the other side (some moisture will be released as the eggplant cooks).
Cool the eggplant to room temperature. Whisk the labneh with a pinch of salt in a small bowl until it is smooth and creamy. Arrange the eggplant slices on a serving platter and top the center of each slice with a small dollop of labneh, about a tablespoon each. Sprinkle the eggplant and the labneh with the pomegranate seeds, and serve immediately.
Labneh (Thick Yogurt)
Makes about 3 cups / 690 g
Place a large colander in the sink or over a bowl to catch the dripping whey, and line the colander with a large sheer hankie, fine cheesecloth, a specialty draining bag, or an ink-free paper towel (a single layer).
Pour the yogurt into the lined colander. To encourage and speed up the draining process, gravity is your friend. If you’re using a large hankie or cheesecloth, tie together the opposite corners of the cloth, hobo-style, and hang it from the faucet (be sure you can do without running the water for several hours, ideally overnight) with the colander underneath to catch the bundle if it falls. Or hang the bundle from a long-handled wooden spoon suspended over a deep bowl or pot. If you’re using paper towels, cover the top of the yogurt with another towel; keep the colander in the sink, or place it over a deep bowl (double boiler-style) to catch the whey. The whey can then be discarded.
Drain the yogurt at least 4 to 6 hours, preferably overnight. It does not need to be refrigerated while draining.
When the labneh is thickened, scrape it from the lining of the colander with a rubber spatula or, if it pulls away cleanly as it tends to do when drained in paper towel, simply turn the labneh out into a bowl. Add the salt and whisk the labneh well to smooth out any lumps. Aunt Hilda was so devoted to smoothing her labneh that she used to whip it in the stand mixer for a smoothness that would meet her exacting standards. A paper towel can be tucked in over the top of the labneh in an airtight container to absorb the excess whey.
Cover and chill the labneh, ideally overnight, before serving. It will keep in an airtight container in the refrigerator for a couple of weeks.
Laban (Homemade Yogurt)
Rinse a large heavy pot (3-quart / 3 L or larger) with cool water. Every Lebanese woman I know does this to help prevent scorching; I don’t question it. Add the milk, and if you’re using a thermometer, clip it to the side of the pan without letting it touch the bottom. Heat the milk slowly over medium-low heat to just below a boil (210˚F / 98˚C), about 30 minutes, depending on how cold the milk is to start. Heating the milk too quickly can result in grainy yogurt. Stay nearby, because the milk will froth up, and as it begins to boil it will rise swiftly in the pan and can overflow. Move the pot off of the heat immediately when it hits 210˚F / 98˚C, or when the milk froths and starts to rise.
Let the milk cool down to 110˚F to 115˚F / 43˚C to 46˚C, stirring occasionally. If you are not using a thermometer, the equivalent is when your pinkie can just withstand being swirled in the milk for ten seconds before you have to pull it away. Arriving at this temperature can take an hour.
To speed it up place the pot in an ice bath in the sink, stirring the milk regularly to release the heat. Temper and loosen the starter by stirring some of the warm milk into it, a tablespoon at a time, about 6 tablespoons total. Stir the warmed starter yogurt thoroughly into the milk. You will notice a skin formed on the surface of the milk while it was heating up; that can be stirred right in with the starter.
Remove the thermometer if you’ve used one, and cover the pot with its lid. Drape a clean kitchen towel over the pot and set it aside, undisturbed, in a warm spot up to 110˚F / 43˚C for 6 to 12 hours.
The longer the yogurt incubates, the more developed the flavor will be. I like to make yogurt in the evening and let it rest overnight and well into the next day. An ideal incubator is the oven, turned off (the oven can be heated on the lowest setting for a minute before placing the pan in, just to encourage warmth, but don’t forget to turn it off!). Remove the lid from the pot. The milk will have thickened into yogurt, which you can tell by lightly jiggling the pot.
Chill the pot of yogurt, undisturbed as of yet, for a day or so before eating it or straining to thicken it for labneh.
Note: If the milk cools below 110˚F / 43˚C (or your pinkie can stand it longer than ten seconds) before you introduce the starter, slowly warm the milk up again to 110 to 115˚F / 43˚C to 46˚C. If in this process of reheating, the temperature goes above 115˚F / 46˚C, wait again until it comes back down to 110˚F to 115˚F / 43˚C to 46˚C.
Reprinted with permission from Rose Water & Orange Blossoms © 2015 by Maureen Abood, Running Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group.