Cooking with eggplant, Turkish style
While we were in China, Sushu's mom planted green peppers and eggplants in our backyard vegetable garden.
She didn't plant those tomatoes. They just grew there all on their own.
I grew a lot of tomatoes there last summer; they all died in the fall, but I guess some seeds found their way into the soil.
Sushu's mom told me a Chinese saying about how the flower carefully tended does not bloom, while the willow branch carelessly dropped grows to provide much shade.
I don't know if it's the soil quality, the climate, or what, but our backyard is amazingly fertile.
So we've got all these eggplants, tomatoes, and peppers from the backyard. What do to with them all?
Tomatoes and peppers are easy to use in salads and pasta, but eggplants are a little trickier. I've made way too many curries where the rest of the vegetables were done but the eggplant was still tough and spongy. You can't just throw eggplant into a dish - you gotta have a plan for it.
The best eggplant I ever had was in Turkey. They do amazing things with eggplant, lamb, olives, and sheep cheese. I brought back a Turkish cookbook but I had never used it. Seems like a good time to try out some eggplant recipies!
One thing they do in Turkish cooking is to smoke the eggplant. We have a small charcoal grill in our backyard so I decided to give it a try.
First problem: We had a sack of coals in the garage, but no lighter fluid. I used junk mail as kindling, but the coals wouldn't catch. Finally Sushu offered me a bottle of baijou (Chinese sorghum alcohol). I poured some of that on the coals, threw in a match...
... and just barely yanked my arm back fast enough to save my arm hairs from getting set alight by the ensuing fireball.
Still, it's the best use I've found so far for baijou. That stuff is naaaaas-ty.
Anyway, you close the lid and leave the eggplant in there for like 20 minutes, then turn it over with some tongs and let it cook on the other side for another 20 minutes.
It'll get black and crispy on the outside, and you will think you have ruined it, but scrape the peel off (throw it away) and the inside will be a tender mush with the most amazing delicate smoky flavor. Seriously, it's the bomb.
Mix some milk and a few sprinkles of flour in a frying pan to make a sauce base, then mash the eggplant up with a fork and stir it in with the milk mixture. Add some feta cheese and salt and stir it until it all melts together.
Eat it with pita bread, or combine it with the meat dish I'm about to describe...
My mom hates lamb, so we never had it when I was growing up. But once I tried lamb, I loved it. Especially with the right blend of spices, it's delicious.
So for this one, chop up a whole onion and a few cloves of garlic and sautee them in oil. Then throw in a package of ground lamb.
The Turkish cookbook didn't list any spices (perhaps the spice blend is a Turkish trade secret). I tried it without spices and it was really bland. Through some trial and error, I settled on the following spices:
Salt, black pepper, garlic powder, cayenne pepper, sage, and cumin. LOTS of cumin. Don't be shy. Cumin is lamb's best friend.
While the meat is browning, chop up a bell pepper and a large tomato and throw those in. Keep tasting it and adjusting the spice mix. Stir-fry until all the vegetables are soft and the meat is well-done.
You can eat this stuff straight with a fork, or have it with pita and the smoked eggplant mush, or you can make it into a moussaka.
For the moussaka, take a couple of large eggplants and peel them. Chop them into half-inch-thick slices. Soak the slices in salt water for half an hour. This step is important as it tenderizes them and leeches out the water, leaving the eggplant ready to absorb oil and meat juices!
After half an hour, wring out the eggplant pieces by hand, and then fry them in oil until they turn dark, silky, and translucent. They will absorb a LOT of oil - you may need to keep adding more. I used canola oil but olive oil would be even better.
Once that's done, layer the eggplant slices with the meat mixture in a pan (like you're making a lasagna with eggplant slices instead of noodles) and bake it for 20-30 minutes.