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.
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.
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
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)
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
5 medium eggplants
1 onion, chopped
¼ cup olive oil
2 tomatoes, peeled and chopped
4 cloves of garlic, mashed
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.
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.