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If you’ve never prepared Russian food before, zakuski are a great place to start. Similar to hors d’oeuvres, they’re little bites meant to be served before a meal.

Zakuski are usually accompanied by vodka, but rest assured, you don’t have to get sauced to enjoy them. Many traditional recipes are healthy and nutritious too, relying on root vegetables, eggplant, tomatoes, mushrooms, and fresh herbs. Smoked fish, cured meats, sausage, cheese, olives, and pickles often make an appearance too, but you can use these in moderation, leaning toward the vegetable-heavy side of the zakuski spectrum.

Today I’m sharing one of my favorites, eggplant caviar, or in Russian, baklazhannaya ikra. It’s really nothing like caviar, except that the eggplant seeds pop in your mouth, not unlike fish eggs. Actually, eggplant seeds are nothing like fish eggs. It’s a tenuous link, really.

Recipes for eggplant caviar always include eggplant, tomatoes, and garlic, and occasionally bell pepper, grated carrots, onions, and/or chopped parsley. The mix of vegetables is seasoned with salt and pepper and dressed with oil and some kind of acid, either vinegar or lemon juice. Occasionally, sugar is added for a sweet/sour contrast.

This version of eggplant caviar is about as simple and healthy as Russian cooking gets. Admittedly, I couldn’t help but sneak a little California into the mix. In order to showcase the dry-farmed Early Girl tomatoes and perky Italian eggplants I found at the market this week, I went fairly minimalist. A little local Cabernet vinegar and a spoonful of Garlic Gold sea salt nuggets made for a tangy and savory salad that I look forward to making again.

Eggplant Caviar (Baklazhannaya Ikra)

serves 4

1 1/2 lbs. (4 medium-sized) Italian eggplants

1/2 lb. (3 medium-sized) dry-farmed Early Girl tomatoes, cut into 1/3″ dice

2 Tbsp. red wine vinegar

1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil

1 tsp. Garlic Gold sea salt nuggets

1/4 tsp. fresh ground black pepper

1. Preheat the oven to 350F and line a baking sheet with aluminum foil.

2. Score the eggplants with a sharp knife and place on the baking sheet. Bake for 30 minutes, until the eggplants begin to wrinkle and are cooked through, but still a bit firm.

3. Remove eggplants from oven and let rest until they are cool enough to handle.

4. Peel the eggplants and remove their skins. Dice them into 1/3″ cubes, and place in a small mixing bowl.

5. Add the rest of the ingredients to the mixing bowl and stir to combine. Let sit for at least an hour before serving to let the flavors come together.

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