Oh Aubergine!

The eggplant easily became integrated into the cuisine of many nations and is a staple in innumerable recipes. Try eating it rolled into a fried cigar with hazelnuts, or in beef broth.

Eggplant fried in beef broth
Eggplant fried in beef broth. Make sure the bread served with it is fresh. Dan Peretz

The Arabs brought the eggplant to Europe. On the Indian peninsula people were eating it already from the dawn of mankind, but it was the convoys of traders who crossed the Arabian peninsula in early medieval times who introduced it to the cold continent that lacked gastronomy in the era preceding the discovery of the
tomato in the New World.

In Sanskrit it was called vatingana (and in Persia where the rivers divide it became known as badinjan). Later it received an Arabic pedigree asal-badinjan, during its journeys to the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. The Spanish Catalonians, who were the first to discover the vegetable’s special qualities, borrowed the letters, and called it alberginia, while it was French counts who finally gave it the refined and aristocratic name aubergine.

In any event, on Nabatean camel convoys to Gaza, along the Arab trade routes to Spain or on the saddles of Ottoman horses to the Balkans − the eggplant was easily integrated into the cuisines of many nations and was absorbed into their sauces and seasonings. These peoples gave it pet names and swore that without eggplant their cuisine was incomplete, and it was better not to eat at all. The Romans roasted it over an open fire and mashed it with garlic like poor man’s caviar, the Greeks baked it in layers of meat and bechamel, the Turks stuffed it with meat and tomatoes until the imam fainted, and the residents of Aleppo dipped it in tahini and seared it in lemon until they couldn’t get through a summer without it.

To determine whether a young girl was worthy of being engaged to a talmid hacham (Jewish scholar) or to the son of a wealthy merchant, her future mother-in-law would ask the matchmaker how many recipes the girl knew how to prepare from eggplant. If she knew fewer than 10 that was a sign that her education was lacking, and she was not considered worthy.

So, here, my daughter, are two recipes that you can prepare for your chosen one. Devote a lot of attention and hard work to their preparation, place them before him and then tell him your father sent a message that until he learns to prepare at least 10 additional dishes from eggplant and serves them to you, he will never be deserving of a princess like you.

Eggplant and hazelnuts rolled in a fried cigar

This is one of those dishes that you have to eat in order to understand their flavor. The salty and nutty sweetness with a crumbly texture adheres to the roasted-bitter flavors of the eggplant in total harmony − and when they burst forth from a crisp brown leaf of a fried cigar, they surprise you anew with every bite. Anyone who serves this dish will remind his guests of palaces of swooning sultans or of feasts in the gardens of Spain, and the guests will close their eyes for a moment and thank him profusely. Makes about 20 cigars.

2 large wide (baladi) eggplants, solid and shiny

1 1/2 cups (150 gm.) shelled hazelnuts,

4 tbsp. demerara sugar

juice from 1/2 lemon

Atlantic sea salt

ground black pepper

20 cigar leaves, ready for rolling

vegetable oil for deep frying

Roast the eggplants over a gas stove burner or on a charcoal grill until the peel is completely seared and the eggplant loses its shape. Place in a strainer and wait for about 15 minutes until all the liquids drain out. Meanwhile, sprinkle the sugar in a broad, heavy skillet; heat over a low flame until it starts to dissolve. Add the hazelnuts and 1 level teaspoon of salt; stir so that the sugar covers the nuts well. Continue to stir until there is a deep smell of caramel in the kitchen and the nuts have browned a little. Some will stick together; that’s fine.

Let the nuts cool a little in the skillet, and meanwhile peel the eggplants over a bowl. Leave some of the scorched peel on for the taste, and mash the flesh − but not too much. Transfer the cooled hazelnuts to the bowl of a food processor equipped with a steel blade; chop in pulses until the nuts break but don’t turn into powder. Add the broken pieces to the peeled eggplant; season with lemon juice and black pepper. Stir a little with a fork without harming the consistency of the eggplant. Taste and adjust seasoning.

Place a round leaf of dough for the cigars on the work surface, and in the center place 2 tablespoons of filling. Roll the dough up, folding in the edges and set aside the rolled-up cigars, seam side facing down. Repeat the process with the rest of the filling and dough leaves.

Heat 2 centimeters of oil in a wide pan over a medium flame. When the oil is hot gently transfer the cigars to it, seam side down. If the oil is too hot lower the heat a little. When the cigar starts to brown a little, turn it over once and allow it to take on a deep golden color. Remove to absorbent paper, and serve immediately with a bowl of raw tahini or labaneh.

Eggplant fried in beef broth

This dish can be prepared from scratch according to the recipe, or on Sunday from the leftovers of the Shabbat roast. Whatever you do, fry the eggplant only at the last moment; also, the bread served with this dish must be especially fresh and soft. Make sure not to add too much water during cooking so that you’ll get a very thick broth. If you fry the potatoes and add them only toward the end of the process, they will have an attractive color and will also remain crisp and whole − and together with the eggplant they add flavor and texture to the thick broth. If you serve this with a hard-boiled egg and a little tahini, you can eat it on a morning when you don’t have to go to work and can rest all day long.

For the broth:

1 kg. pot roast (No. 5)

1/2 cup (60 gm.) white flour

1/4 cup (60 ml.) olive oil

1 large onion

2 carrots

1 celery root

12 parsley stalks

4-5 bay leaves

10 whole allspice berries

Atlantic sea salt

ground black pepper

For the vegetables:

4-5 large white potatoes

3 firm shiny, long eggplants

1/2 cup (120 ml.) olive oil

Begin by preparing the broth: Cut the meat into 2-centimeter cubes and dredge in flour. Get rid of the surplus flour by shaking. Heat olive oil in a heavy iron pot; add the meat and saute until it turns a deep brown color. Turn over the pieces to seal them well on all sides.

Meanwhile, peel the onion, carrot and celery root; cut in small cubes. Remove the browned pieces of meat from the oil, and add cut vegetables. Fry while stirring, until they brown. Put back the meat, add bay leaves, allspice berries, parsley and black pepper; stir and cover with water. Bring to a boil, lower the heat and cook covered over a low flame for about 2 1/2 hours. Stir occasionally and add water if necessary.

Peel the potatoes and cut into very thick (3-centimeter) slices. Heat oil in a skillet and fry them until brown on both sides. Remove from the oil and transfer to absorbent paper.

Check the meat in the broth with a fork. At this stage it should be very soft. Mix and crumble the meat with a fork together with the rest of the vegetables, until you get the consistency of a thick broth. Salt and taste.

Place the fried potatoes on top and cook covered over a low flame for about another half hour. Turn over once during the cooking process.

While the potatoes are cooking, peel the eggplants and halve them lengthwise. Heat the oil used for the potatoes and fry the eggplant halves in it on all sides until they brown. Remove to absorbent paper.

For serving, take a deep plate and add several heaping tablespoons of broth into it. Place half a fried eggplant on top, with a potato cooked in the broth next to it. Serve with half a loaf of white bread and a small bowl ofzhug (a spicy Yemenite condiment). Mash everything with a fork, so the sauce is absorbed, and eat with or without a hard-boiled egg.