I was on a photo assignment in İzmir, the only time I’ve been to Turkey, when I first had this classic Turkish appetizer of eggplant slowly cooked in olive oil. The factory we were shooting in was full of ancient machinery and we took lots of evocative pictures of dusty gears and cobwebby conveyor belts, but they didn’t suit the company’s modern image of itself so none of them were ever used.
The origins of this recipe are apocryphal. Some say the Imam swooned from delight when Missus Imam served it to him. Others recount how he had married an olive oil heiress for her liquid dowry, but when he realised how much of the commodity went into her cooking, he fainted in horror. To be honest the dish, which comprises aubergines split lengthways and crammed with tomato, garlic and onion, does look like a cartoon imam lying on his back – black cape and hat and all – may the prophet curse me for suggesting such a thing.
Vegetables are often prepared in this way in Turkey, slow simmered with an indecent quantity of olive oil, and usually eaten cold or at room temperature, and are served as part of a summer mezze. If you want to make a less oily version, you can just bake everything, but it won’t have the same flavour. Although the authentic version leaves the skin on the egg plant, I prefer to peel it, except for the “hat” so the whole thing can be eaten, as in the recipe.
For a recent vegetarian dinner with friends, I offered the dish as part of the main course. along with Dan Frenette’s sauteed carrots and pea and mint croquettes from Yotam Ottolenghi’s book Plenty More. To start I served my own curried carrot soup and Yotam’s delicious fig salad. The meal concluded with another dish from Market to Table — Mango delight, made with fresh Ataulfo mangoes.
Almost everything turned out as expected, but I learned some interesting lessons along the way. More on that next week.
STUFFED EGGPLANT, IMAM BAYALDI
- 2 large or 4 small eggplants (aubergines)
- 4–6 garlic cloves, finely sliced
- 2 onions, finely sliced
- 3–4 tomatoes, cored, de-seeded and roughly chopped
- 4–6 TBSP EVOO (extra virgin olive oil)
- 1 tsp paprika
- 1 tsp brown sugar
- 1 TBSP pekmez (Turkish grape syrup) or lemon juice
- salt and black pepper
- Fresh mint
Preparation and cooking
- Leaving the hat on the egg plants, score through the skin and peel it away in stripes. Then cut an incision along the length of each one and draw out the seedy bits. Chop these and set to one side. Sprinkle the cavities you have created with salt, and turn upside down on kitchen paper to drain for 30 minutes. At the end of this time, wipe the inside of the vegetables. (NOTE: if your egg plants are too small to scoop out, just cut them in half, through the hat, and stuff the two halves.)
- Chop the onions finely. Crush the garlic. Core and seed the tomatoes and chop them roughly. Remove the mint leaves from the stalks, rinse them thoroughly and tear them roughly.
- Now heat a Gentleman’s Portion (a generous shot, of course!) of EVOO in a large frying pan. Fry the eggplants into the hot oil for about 7 minutes, turning them occasionally, until they are lightly browned and somewhat softer. Remove them and set them on paper towels to drain. Add a bit more oil to the pan and fry the garlic and the onions. After 5 minutes, add the tomatoes, paprika, sugar and pekmez, stir well and season.
- Preheat oven to 350°F/175°C.
- Place the eggplants in a baking pan, and prize open the cavities. Divide the onion and tomato mixture between them, compacting it well, and then drizzle the rest of the sauce from the pan across the top. Add ½ cup of cold water and put the pan in the oven for about 45 minutes to cook. At the end of this time they should be perfectly tender, swooning even.
- Remove from the oven and let them cool.
- Serve sprinkled with mint, and accompany with plenty of coarse bread to soak up the juices. The stuffed eggplants will keep in the fridge for 2–3 days if covered. The flavour does improve after 24 hours, so you can cook ahead.
Categories: Market to Table