FOOD


'AND THE PRIEST FAINTED'

by Betty Thompson



ACCORDING TO TURKISH LEGEND, the Imam, or Muslim priest, loved eggplant cooked with meat. But late one afternoon his wife discovered that she had no meat and the butcher was closed. So she collected her wits and created an eggplant dish substituting vegetables for the meat.

The Imam swooned over the heavenly aroma and ate portion after portion of the meal until he laid down in a stupor and could eat no more. When friends arrived and wanted to know what had happened to him his wife replied, "Imam Bayeldi," which means "the priest fainted," and so the dish was named.

The eggplant, or aubergine, a member of the potato family, is a much-appreciated vegetable from the Mediterranean to the Orient. The most popular dishes that come to mind are moussaka, eggplant layered with ground lamb, seasoned with tomato and allspice and smothered in a creamy cheese souffle; ratatouille, a savory combination of eggplant, zucchini, green pepper, tomatoes, onions and garlic; Sicilian caponata, eggplant, capers, anchovies and celery in a tomato and onion sauce garnished with tuna, and eggplant parmigiana, thick breaded slices of eggplant layered with tangy tomato sauce and slices of mozzarella.

Many complaints are heard that eggplant dishes are tough, bitter, oil-soaked and tasteless. But when selected and prepared carefully, eggplant should be firm and meaty with a mild nut-like flavor.

To achieve this, choose eggplants that are firm, heavy, satiny and of uniform color. Slice, salt thoroughly and let stand to draw out the bitter juices (macerate).

Not all eggplants are bitter, and after salting, the slices still soak up large quantities of oil. I came more fully to understand the salting process after reading an article, "How to Cook Eggplant" by Stephen Schmidt in Cook's Illustrated, July 1993. After many experiments, the author's conclusion was that eggplant is extremely porous. When it is not salted and pressed it soaks up oil like a sponge.

Salting draws water out of the cells, but the flesh of the eggplant must also be firmly pressed between sheets of paper towels to compact the flesh. For optimal extraction the eggplant must macerate for at least 1!/2 hours, but preferably for two to three hours. A colander is preferred so juices can drain.

Steaming is an acceptable last-minute alternative to salting. Steam slices over boiling water for three to five minutes. Drain, cool and press between paper towels. The end result is softer and less flavorful than salting but is better than no preliminary attention at all.

As an alternative to frying, eggplant slices can be baked or broiled.

To bake, place slices close together on a cookie sheet. Brush both sides with olive oil and bake in the upper third of a 375· oven for about 20 minutes. Turn once. To broil, brush slices with olive oil. Broil about six inches from the heat until tops are golden brown; about six minutes. Turn and broil the other side.

This month's recipes have passed the taste test with students who had never eaten eggplant.


FAINTING IMAM

4 slender Asian eggplants (1 1/2 inch-by-8-inch)

3-4 tablespoons olive oil

1 medium onion, sliced in half lengthwise and sliced to make long strips

1 green pepper, cut into 1/4-inch-by-2-inch strips

2 tomatoes, diced

4 cloves garlic, crushed

3 tablespoons parsley, minced

Salt and pepper to taste

1 tablespoon lemon juice

1 teaspoon sugar

1/2 cup chicken broth

Wash eggplants and cut a slit almost end to end. Sprinkle salt in the cut and let stand in a colander for one hour. Rinse, squeeze as much moisture out as possible, pat dry.

Fry over medium heat with a little oil for about two minutes (until blistered on all sides). Remove to a baking dish and gently pry open slit to hold filling.

In the same pan, saute onions, green peppers, one tomato and garlic until almost tender. Add additional oil if necessary. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Fill eggplants with the mixture. Top with lemon juice, sugar and remaining tomato. Pour chicken stock in the bottom of the dish.

Cover and bake at 350· for about 40 minutes or microwave covered on high for about nine minutes. Serve hot or cold. Leftovers make an excellent sandwich filling.



EGGPLANT ROLLS & WALNUT SAUCE

4 long thin eggplants, cut in half lengthwise

Salt

1 cup walnut pieces

3 cloves garlic

1 teaspoon coriander

Salt and pepper

1/2 cup chopped parsley

1/4 cup chopped onion

2 tablespoons lemon juice

2 tablespoons olive oil

Sprinkle eggplants generously with salt and let stand for one hour. Rinse and press flat between paper towels.

To make nut sauce, purée nuts and garlic in a food processor. Add remaining ingredients and purée into a smooth spread. Adjust lemon and salt to taste.

Heat one tablespoon olive oil in a skillet and lay eggplants skin side down. Fry gently for one minute and cover and steam for another 10 minutes. Remove and let drain on paper towels.

Spread each cut side with a layer of nut sauce and roll up. Place seam side down on serving plate. Garnish with black Kalamata olives and wedges of tomato.

If using a large eggplant, salt slices, press, grill and top with walnut sauce.

Variation: Spread pocket bread with nut sauce, add a slice of grilled eggplant and tomato for a delicious sandwich.


Betty Thompson has taught cooking locally since 1974.


Comments? E-mail the Journal: ncjour@northcoast.com


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