Turkish Meatballs in Smoky Eggplant Sauce

by Sarah on January 17, 2010

The French have their baguette, the English their boiled potato, the Italians, pasta and the Turks and Arabs their beloved eggplant. A good Turkish wife supposedly knows how to make hundreds of eggplant recipes each one uniquely eggplanty and this alone should be enough to grant Turkey entrance into the European Union.

It is generally believed that eggplants originated in India with numerous varieties found there. In Persia it was assimilated into the developing Arab cuisine and introduced to the Mediterranean region through their trade and conquest during medieval time. The Moors of North Africa carried the eggplants to Spain and the Spaniards in turn brought them to the new world. In Arabic eggplants are called Baadanjaan a name that can be traced to Sanskrit, where it all began.

Although it was accepted in Spain, the rest of Europe rejected it either because they considered it an Arab vegetable or mistakenly thought it was poisonous because they associated it with the notorious mandrake and henbane, both of the same family.

All this information is useless, however, if you don’t know how to cook eggplants in the first place which was how I started a few years ago. I avoided eggplant because:

1. It had an unlimited ability to soak up oil (it should be used to clean oil spills).

2. I was scared of the “bitter juices” all the cookbooks warned about.

For a very long time I would dutifully salt the eggplants because I was taught that this reduced their bitterness, however when I accidently omitted this critical step I realized that I had been wasting a lot salt and time. Apparently new cultivars of eggplants are not as bitter, but many cooks, stuck in recipe inertia still insist on this lengthy and superfluous step, making me wonder about all the other recipes I could be streamlining.

I was told by Zahava of Kosher Camembert who herself was taught by Janna Gur, that male eggplants are preferred over the females because they tend to have fewer seeds, the source of the bitter alkaloids. It is lucky she is an MD because she immediately recognized the male eggplant while on a trip to Ramle Shuk. The males have a round “bellybutton” while the females have a longer one and are rounder.

Male and female eggplants, can you find the difference?

The eggplant’s penchant for soaking up oil is not a problem when eggplants are grilled over an open fire, but when frying slices it is best to use very hot oil. The slices should be completely dry before adding them to the oil, either by patting with paper towels or dipping in flour to absorb the extra moisture. I ignore both these tips and simply brush both sides with olive oil, adding spices for flavor and place them in a hot oven (200 C) for about 40 minutes, turning once.

eggplants-a modest view

friendly eggplant vendor

My love of eggplant started during unexpected and troubled times when my favorite Aunt Hadassa and her brood sought refuge with us during a summer much hotter than usual, especially near the border village of Shtula.  She is a hardworking, no nonsense women who clearly reigns supreme in the kitchen leaving me looking over her shoulder feeling just a tad inadequate.  With the dexterity of craftsman she created aromas that were never there before, prompting my son to ask “What’s that disgusting smell?”  That was the wonderful aroma of eggplants broiled over and an open flame. Although I can’t make as many eggplant recipes ask a good Turkish wife I am definitely heading in that direction.

Meatballs with smoky eggplant sauce

Meatballs

600 grams ground beef or lamb, such as chuck, neck or rib at least 20% fat

1 onion, coarsely grated

1 zucchini coarsely grated (some use finely grated potato but I prefer zucchini because it softens up faster)

1 egg

2 pieces of bread, crusts removed, soaked in water and squeezed dry or 2-4 tablespoons bread crumbs

1/2 cup parsley or a bunch, chopped finely

1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Lamb tail fat for frying or vegetable oil

Eggplant sauce

5 medium eggplants

1 onion, chopped

¼ cup olive oil

2 tomatoes, peeled and chopped

4 cloves of garlic, mashed

salt/pepper

1 teaspoon sweet paprika

½ hot paprika

Combine all the ingredients and knead well to form a uniform mixture. It should be neither watery nor stiff, but the consistency of soft play dough. Let rest in the refrigerator.

Eggplant sauce: Poke the eggplants with a fork in several places (otherwise it is liable to explode*) and roast over an open flame until soft, rotating when necessary. The skins should char a bit, this is natural. Cool and remove pulp and mash it with a fork.

Heat oil in a pan and add onions, frying until they become translucent and begin to soften, about 10-20 minutes. Add the garlic and the tomatoes and cook for 10 minutes. Add the eggplant and spices and cook on low heat while mixing occasionally until the mixture begins to thicken and is homogenous.

Take the meatball mixer from the refrigerator and form 15-18 balls, flattening them slightly. In a cast iron skillet or other heavy frying pan add a tablespoon or two of the lamb tail fat or vegetable oil (very little) and add the meatballs, frying on high heat to brown both sides nicely.

there is nothing like a cast iron skillet for browning meat

Fry in batches to avoid crowding because that will cause the meatballs to weep. The meatballs will continue cooking in the sauce and shouldn’t be fully cooked at this point. Transfer to plate. Add a splash of water to the frying pan and scrape all the brown bits off with a wooden spoon and pour into the sauce. Add the meatballs to the sauce, don’t worry if the sauce doesn’t cover them completely. There should be just enough sauce to come half way up the top layer, if not add a bit more water. Cook on low heat, at a simmer, covered for 20-30 minutes. Taste and adjust seasonings.

*As my father can testify, poke holes in the eggplants because they can and will happily explode. This is exactly what happened when he broiled eggplants when visiting my brother and lovely wife in the old city of Jerusalem. It sounded like fire shots and that is not a sound you wish to hear in the world’s most contested capital.

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{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

Yael January 17, 2010 at 1:33 am

Looking very tasty. Abigail loves the Albundigas (meat balls in a slightly different eggplant sauce) that Erez cooks for us.
What courage writing positive things about Turks in the present diplomatic climate, aren’t you worried the Israeli state department t and the beloved Liberman, might close your blog down…

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Jay P January 17, 2010 at 3:27 am

Hi Sarah, We’ve never ‘met.’ It’s my partner who’s the Twitter fan. I just read everything as not much idea how to use it.
Anyway, love your blog. This dish looks fantastic. I make a lot of Turkish dishes and we both love meatballs and aubergines so I’m going to give this one a go. I’ll let you know how we went on once we’ve made it!

JayP

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Sarah January 17, 2010 at 3:52 am

JayP, nice to meet you! you should use twitter, there is no better way to waste your time :-)
Actually I have met some great people on it, including you guys. Eggplants are in season now, in the summer they tend to have more seeds and are much heavier, a trait
best avoided.

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Mimi January 17, 2010 at 6:54 am

Looks excellent, Sarah. I’ve been thinking about eggplants and how to make my family love them – think I’ll start with this recipe. Thanks!

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Yael the Finn January 17, 2010 at 7:14 am

I love eggplants and only recently learned that I did not need to let them sweat with salt anymore.That there are males and females is also new to me,now I will look extra carefully when choosing my eggplants ;-)

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Curiouseats - Lissa January 17, 2010 at 9:40 am

Thanks for sharing your pics of the market! What struck me is how beautiful that cauliflower is. It’s snowy whiteness looks beautifully fresh. Can you share some recipes of how the Turkish use these wonderfully veggies?

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Sarah January 18, 2010 at 12:27 pm

Lissa, now is the season for beautiful cauliflowers. I can’t think of any turkish recipes using them but here it is often fried and combined with tehina sauce, it’s very good although it doesn’t preserve it’s pure color.

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Avital January 18, 2010 at 12:09 pm

YUMMY PEPS!!! LOVE YOU!!!

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Melissa January 18, 2010 at 2:28 pm

I’m in Alabama, USA, my husband is traveling to Tel Aviv this week. I found your site while searching on “shakshuka” and absolutely fell in love with your pictures, commentary, and recipes. You’re now one of my favorites! Thank you, keep writing and taking pictures and cooking.

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Curiouseats - Lissa January 19, 2010 at 8:19 pm

If not Turkish how do they use those beautiful cauliflower? It looks like they are plentiful. I’d love to get your ideas of other ways to use them because they are so healthy.

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Sarah January 20, 2010 at 12:08 am

you have prompted me to search for cauliflower recipes. I am a big fan of Marcella Hazan and often make her Cauliflower with bechamel sauce which is simple and good. Also found this recipe http://dailyconnections.ebru.tv/en/recipes/246.html which looks very tasty with the yogurt sauce. Indians of course use it in their famous aloo gobi. I have a tasty cauliflower fritters recipe on this site…. I can go on :-)

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Zahavah January 20, 2010 at 4:53 pm

I like the modest and immodest views of the eggplants. I have no idea what validity there is in eggplant gender, but is makes sense to me. I’m honored to be quoted. And, I of course can attest to your success in broiling slices without salting. I too have had eggplants explode in my oven when I forget to poke them first.

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Maninas January 28, 2010 at 10:06 am

What a stunning dish! I adore eggplant/aubergine, and will definitely give it a go when the season comes!

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Miriam G. February 1, 2010 at 11:43 am

I have been searching for years for a way to roast eggplants and not land up with mostly black, wet seeds instead of white flesh. Why is this neat bellybutton tip such a well-kept secret? (Well, not anymore – I’ve already told 4 or 5 people since I read your post last week!) I did manage to find one definitively male eggplant among the many females at my local supermarket by using your tip, and had lovely, creamy white babaganoush for Shabbos. Thanks!

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J April 21, 2010 at 5:44 pm

I’m making this tonight! I had a recipe idea earlier today using kefta-style meatballs and eggplant/tomato sauce and wanted to find out if anyone had a similar recipe. And this is exactly what I was thinking about making! Great photos, can’t wait to make this :)

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Sarah April 21, 2010 at 8:44 pm

let me know how it turns out (only if it’s good of course!) ;-)

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