Monday, January 7, 2013

Travel to Eat

Some people live to eat, others eat to live. I fall into the first category. I'm not ashamed of that, though it has led me to fight the Battle of the Bulge forever. It has also led me on numerous adventures and modified my sensibilities as to what, exactly, constitutes food around the world. Traveling and eating are two activities I dearly love. If I could figure out a way, I would eat to travel!!

As a kid, there was a long list of foods I hated and hated to smell cooking. Liver was #1 and still is. I don't ever eat it and can't even be in a house where it's cooking. The odor is worse than cigar smoke.

In Turkey people have gardens on their roofs,
in courtyards.....wherever the sun shines.  
Other items on the hate list included raw onions, Brussels sprouts, eggplant, tongue, and lamb. As taste buds mature, certain foods still taste the same but for some strange reason are no longer repulsive. A gourmand friend caramelized a variety of cruciferous vegetables together with balsamic vinegar and olive oil, some nuts and onions. I was blown away; Brussels sprouts came down off the hate list. Slow exposure to lamb in Indian and middle eastern cooking has brought lamb off the list, but it's still gross if it's gamy. Tongue is palatable, but it and liver both have a wet-powder texture I've never gotten used to. And recently, while visiting Aylin's family in Akyurt, her mother made an eggplant dish that was so good I thought I might faint. In fact, it's called Imam Bayildy which means "the priest fainted". One legend is that it was so delicious he just keeled over. But the opposite legend is that when his wife served it, he asked how much (expensive) olive oil she used. When she told him.....he fainted!

The Turks claim to have a hundred ways to cook eggplant and judging from the myriad dishes I ate in Turkey, I agree. It's probably safe to say it's their national vegetable. It's served hot, cold, mixed with other vegetables, pureed, chopped, sauteed, deep fried, breaded and fried, baked, broiled, and stuffed.

It wouldn't be proper to travel half way round the world to eat something easily prepared at home, and then never bother to cook it.  So although this is not a cooking blog, if you want to try to make fabulous eggplant, here's a good recipe from the cookbook Arabesque by Claudia Roden.

Eggplants stuffed with onions and tomatoes: Imam Bayildy

1 1/2 large onions, sliced thinly
2-3 T extra virgin olive oil
5 garlic cloves, minced
4 tomatoes, peeled and chopped
3 T flat leaf parsley, chopped
salt to taste

6 small eggplants (about 4 to 4 1/2 ounces each, 5 1/2 inches long)
1 cup good quality tomato juice
1 t. sugar
juice of one lemon
2/3 cup extra virgin olive oil

Make the filling first. Soften the sliced onions gently in the oil but do not let them color. Add the chopped garlic and stir for a moment or two until the aroma rises. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the tomatoes and the chopped parsley. Season to taste with salt and mix well.

Trim the caps from the ends of the eggplants. Peel off 1/3 inch wide strips of skin lengthwise, leaving alternate strips of peel and bare flesh. Make a deep cut on one side of each eggplant lengthwise, from one end to the other but not right through, in order to make a pocket.

Stuff the pocket of each eggplant with the filing and place them tightly side by side, with the opening face up, in a wide shallow pan. Mix the tomato juice with the sugar, salt, and the lemon juice. Pour this and the oil over the eggplants. Cover the pan and simmer gently for about 45 minutes or until the eggplants are soft and the liquid much reduced.

Alternatively you can cook the stuffed eggplants in the oven. Arrange them, cut side up in a baking dish, with the rest of the ingredients poured over, cover with foil and cook in the oven preheated to 400 degrees F for one hour or until soft. Allow to cool before arranging on a serving dish.

(If you like this, consider buying Claudia Roden's cookbook, it's loaded with great recipes from Morocco, Turkey, and Lebanon, all wonderful!)