An Aubergine Travel Diary

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in: Cooking

The eggplant dish Imam Bayildi just before it gets
its 1 1/2
hours of simmering. Photo by Martha
Rose Shulman
EARTH TO KITCHEN: EGGPLANT

First in a series on growing what you cook
and cooking what you grow.

I have a French cookbook that I love called “Voyages de l’Aubergine,” a collection of 143 eggplant recipes in a series called “Cuisines Migrantes.” The recipes mirror the migrations of people, particularly in Western Europe, refugees from poverty, oppression, or war (or all three). People who are forced to flee leave loved ones and possessions behind, but they bring their food culture with them. The author of the book, Nina Kehayan, is the daughter of Jewish refugees, one from southeastern Europe (what is now Moldava and Ukraine) and another from Poland. Her husband’s father is Armenian, his mother Kurdish. Kehayan writes eloquently about how joyfully her mother grilled eggplants over a gas burner in a tiny Paris flat so she could make the eggplant caviar that she had grown up eating; and of how proud her father-in-law was of the beautiful eggplants he grew in his kitchen garden in Marseille. Interspersed with the many Provencal recipes in this collection are recipes from India and China, the Middle East and North Africa, Italy and Greece, and the Balkans and Russia.

Long before it reached the Mediterranean, eggplant was cultivated in India and Asia, where it is still widely eaten. But because the cuisines of the Mediterranean are the cuisines I know best and feel the most comfortable cooking, that’s where most of the eggplant recipes that I cook come from. There are enough to fill a book. Here are just a smattering; they range from complex to utterly simple.

Notes about cooking eggplant:

Purging: My favorite line about eggplant is in my friend Russ Parsons’ book, “How to Pick a Peach”: “Let’s get one thing straight: most eggplants are not bitter (even though they have every right to be after everything that has been said about them).” According to Parsons, salting improves eggplant’s texture if it’s going to be fried, but that’s the only reason to purge it.

Frying: Eggplant will drink up as much oil as you give it. I get around this by softening eggplant in a hot oven or under a broiler. That way I don’t have to use so much oil. The techniques I use are not traditional, but they work.

For tips on growing your own eggplants, see John Lyons’ article, “Eggplants by the Dozen.”

 

Balkan Style Moussaka

Serves 6

Let’s face it: There are more bad moussakas than good ones being served in Greek restaurants all over the country, and in Greece too I might add. But this one is the best moussaka I’ve ever eaten. The meat filling, spiced with a little cinnamon, a pinch of allspice, a few cloves, has complex, sweet and savory Eastern Mediterranean flavors. Unlike the traditional Greek bechamel, which can be heavy, even gummy, this Balkan-style moussaka has a light topping made with yogurt and eggs.

Ingredients

For the eggplant:
2-2½ pounds (3 medium or 2 large) eggplant
Salt
Extra virgin olive oil

For the meat:
1 pound minced or ground lamb or beef (leaner is better)
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 medium onions, chopped
2 large garlic cloves, minced
1 pound tomatoes, peeled and chopped, with juice, or one 14-ounce can, with juice
1 heaped tablespoon tomato paste
½ teaspoon sweet paprika
¼ rounded teaspoon ground cinnamon
3 cloves, ground
Pinch of allspice (2 or 3 berries), ground
½  teaspoon sugar
1 bay leaf
½ to 1 cup hot water
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
½ cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
1 egg, beaten

For the topping:
4 eggs, beaten
1½ cups plain thick Greek style yogurt
Salt (about ½ teaspoon), pepper and a pinch of paprika
½ cup freshly grated Parmesan, kefalotyri or kashkaval cheese

Directions

  1. Preheat the oven to 450 F and oil baking sheets with olive oil. Slice the eggplants lengthwise, about ⅓-inch thick. Salt the slices, place on oiled baking sheets and brush the tops with olive oil. Bake 10 to 15 minutes, until lightly browned and cooked through. Remove from the heat and cover the baking sheets with foil. Turn the oven down to 350 F.
  2. Make the meat and tomato filling. Heat a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat and add the minced meat. Cook, stirring, until the meat has browned and rendered its fat, about 5 to 10 minutes. Remove from the heat and pour off fat. Set the meat aside. Add a couple of tablespoons of water to the pan and deglaze with a wooden spoon. Add to the meat.
  3. Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in the pan over medium heat and add the onions. Cook, stirring, until tender, about 5 minutes, and add the garlic. Cook, stirring, until fragrant, about a minute, and stir in the tomatoes, tomato paste, the browned meat, paprika, cinnamon, allspice, cloves, sugar, bay leaf, salt, and enough water to cover the meat. Bring to a simmer, reduce the heat to low, cover and simmer 45 minutes to an hour, stirring occasionally. The mixture should be thick and very fragrant. Cook uncovered for another 5 to 10 minutes, until the liquid in the pan is just about gone. Remove the bay leaf, stir in the pepper and remove from the heat. Taste and adjust salt. Remove from the heat and set aside. When the mixture has cooled slightly, stir in the beaten egg and the parsley.
  4. Oil a 3-quart baking dish or gratin dish. Make an even layer of half the eggplant over the bottom, and spread all of the meat sauce on top in one layer. Top with a layer of the remaining eggplant. Place in the 350 F oven and bake for 30 minutes.
  5. Meanwhile, beat together the eggs and yogurt, season with salt (about ½ teaspoon) and stir in the pepper and paprika. Pour over the top of the moussaka, scraping out every last drop with a rubber spatula. Sprinkle the grated cheese evenly over the top. Return to the oven and bake for another 25 to 30 minutes, until golden. Serve warm.

 


Imam Bayildi

Serves 4

This is probably the most famous Turkish eggplant dish. The name means “the Imam fainted,” and refers to the fact that the imam’s pleasure was so great when he ate this dish that he swooned. Another version of the story claims that the imam fainted when he learned how much expensive olive oil was used in the dish. No matter why the imam swooned, the vegetables should be so soft that they melt in your mouth.

Ingredients
2 medium or 4 small eggplants, cut in half lengthwise
1 large or 2 medium onions, sliced very thin across the grain
4 to 6 garlic cloves (to taste), finely chopped
1½  pounds (3 large or 6 medium) tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped
¼  teaspoon cinnamon
¼ cup finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh dill
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh basil (optional)
Salt
6 tablespoons olive oil
¼  cup water
2½ teaspoons sugar
2 tablespoons lemon juice (optional)

Directions

  1. Preheat the oven to 450 F. Oil a baking sheet with olive oil. Slit the eggplants down the middle, being careful not to cut through the skin. Place on the baking sheet and bake for 20 minutes, until the outer skin begins to shrivel. Remove from the oven and transfer, cut side down, to a colander set in the sink. Allow to drain for 30 minutes.
  2. Meanwhile, heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil over medium heat in a large, lidded skillet and add the onions. Cook, stirring often, until the onions are tender, about 5 minutes, and add the garlic. Cook, stirring, for 30 seconds to a minute, until fragrant. Remove from the heat and transfer to a bowl. Add the tomatoes, cinnamon, herbs, 1 teaspoon salt, 1 teaspoon of the sugar and 1 tablespoon of the remaining oil. Mix together well.
  3. Turn the eggplants over and place in the pan, cut side up. Season with salt. Gently pull apart at the slit down the middle, and fill and top with the onion and tomato mixture. Mix together the remaining olive oil, the remaining sugar, the water and the lemon juice. Drizzle over and around the eggplants. Cover the pan and place over low heat. Cook gently for 1½ to 2 hours, basting from time to time with the liquid in the pan, and adding water to the pan if it becomes too dry. By the end of cooking the eggplants should be practically flat and the liquid in the pan slightly caramelized. If there is still a lot of liquid in the pan, carefully remove the eggplants to a serving dish and turn up the heat. Reduce the liquid until it is syrupy. Spoon this juice over the eggplant. Allow to cool, and serve at room temperature. This tastes even better the day after you make it. Refrigerate overnight and bring to room temperature to serve.

 


Simple Baked Eggplant With Yogurt and Mint Topping

Serves 4

This is another Turkish dish, a very simple dish to make with small eggplants. The baking times will vary depending on the size of the eggplant. They should be baked until soft enough to eat with a spoon. The cool pungent yogurt topping on the hot baked eggplant is typical of Turkish cuisine.

Ingredients

Extra virgin olive oil
4 small eggplant, cut in half
Salt to taste
½ cup drained yogurt or thick Greek-style yogurt
2 garlic cloves (more to taste)
2 tablespoons finely minced fresh mint (more to taste)
Freshly squeezed lemon juice

Directions

  1. Preheat the oven to 400 F. Line a baking sheet with foil and oil the foil with olive oil. Sprinkle the eggplants with salt and place on the baking sheet, cut side down. Bake for 20 minutes, then turn the eggplants over. Make a slit down the middle of each eggplant half, down to but not through the skin. Return to the oven and bake for another 10 to 20 minutes, until the eggplants are very soft.
  2. Meanwhile, mash the garlic to a puree with about ¼ teaspoon salt in a mortar and pestle. Stir into the yogurt. Add the mint, and if you wish, some fresh lemon juice.
  3. Top the tender baked eggplants with the yogurt topping and serve. Eat with a spoon, scooping the flesh out of the skins.

 

 


Pasta With Eggplant and Spicy Tomato Sauce

Serves 4

Small round eggplants are delicate and cook quickly. This is based on an Apulian dish.

Ingredients

2 small round eggplant, cut in ½-inch dice
Salt to taste
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 large garlic cloves, green shoots removed, minced
A generous pinch of red chile flakes
2 large tomatoes (about 12 to 14 ounces), peeled and cored
3 or 4 basil leaves, cut in slivers, torn in pieces, or chopped
3/4 pound spaghetti
Parmesan or Pecorino for serving

Directions

  1. Sprinkle the eggplant with salt and let sit in a colander for 10 minutes. Meanwhile, begin heating a large pot of water for the pasta (and for blanching the tomatoes to peel).
  2. Heat the olive oil over medium-high heat in a large, heavy nonstick skillet and add the eggplant. Cook, stirring often, until lightly browned and tender all the way through, about 10 minutes. Meanwhile cut the tomatoes in half across the equator and squeeze out the seeds through a strainer set over a bowl. Rub the seed pods against the strainer to extract juice. Chop the tomatoes.
  3. When the eggplant is tender, add the garlic and chile flakes, stir together for about 30 seconds until fragrant, and stir in the tomatoes and tomato juice. Add salt to taste and cook, stirring often, until the tomatoes have cooked down to a fragrant sauce, 10 to 15 minutes. Add the basil. Taste and adjust seasonings. Remove from the heat but keep warm.
  4. Bring the pasta water to a boil, salt generously and add the spaghetti. Cook al dente, about 9 minutes. Stir ¼ to ½ cup of the pasta cooking water into the eggplant sauce and drain the pasta. Toss with the sauce and serve, passing Parmesan or Pecorino at the table.

 

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