lebanese stuffed baby eggplants

The city is finally shedding its white crust. Our luminous winter cover is turning to brown slush, as the snow melts into blinding, sunlit puddles. After spending last Monday, Wednesday and Thursday working from home (or battling treacherous sidewalks hunting for coffee and wifi), I was craving company and food more nuanced than snowbound snacks of popcorn, toast, and leftovers.

lebanese baby eggplants

Thankfully, Mark was on the way, offering not only companionship but a car to chauffeur me around on my quest for baby eggplants.

I’ve had this recipe bookmarked for some time; waiting, I guess, for the right opportunity to try it. Saturday seemed as good a day as any to host my first dinner guests since moving to Hyattsville in January. (I guess most weekends have had me out exploring the city, or more recently, surviving “Snowpocalypse 2010.” But as spring approaches, it’s high time I picked up the dinner party pace.)

lebanese baby eggplants

The day provided the perfect foundation on which to build a good meal: A lazy morning, good coffee, an exercise day off, and a kitchen confidant/soux chef rolled into one. We set out around noon to explore the collection of international markets near my neighborhood.

Things didn’t turn out exactly as I’d hoped. The traffic was horrendous: I’m not sure if Marylanders were still dealing with these foreign driving conditions, or that people were venturing out to restock their shelves. Then, after sitting through about 10 cycles of green lights near our destination (where baby eggplants were not to be found), I had to make an unexpected trip home to troubleshoot something work-related. Disappointment threatened.  Frustration encroached on my formerly good mood.

lebanese baby eggplants

When we set out again it was already two o’clock and I still didn’t have my main ingredient. Mark had been on the phone with the local grocery chains, only to be met with busy signals and reports of large eggplants. I started scheming Plan B. But Oh how I’d coveted those eggplants!

We weren’t ready to give up quite yet. Recently equipped with smart phones, Mark could drive while I perused the nearby grocery options. A Halal Meat Market showed up on my map, and I clicked their phone number. I was met with cheerful answers to my questions: Yes, they had ground lamb. What about eggplants? “Yes, we got a vegetable delivery just today,” came the reply. “I’m looking for the small ones, not the big ones…” I began. “The Indian eggplants, yes.” The voice sounded confident enough.

lebanese baby eggplants

We fought more traffic to the little shop, aromas of patchouli and spice wafting out the jingling front door. Sure enough, there beside the limes and chili peppers a box overflowed with deep purple globes no bigger than a child’s fist. The proprietor had spoken the truth. I immediately squashed Plan B, and left with a warm samosa and plenty of time to make dessert.

The dish was a hit: Stuffed with raw rice, ground lamb, onions, garlic, pine nuts and allspice, a simmering tomato sauce slowly cooks the vegetables into tender purple dumplings. On the plate, garnished with saffron yogurt, goat feta, and parsley, each one bursts with robust and game-y flavors. I followed the eggplants with a lemon pie (post forthcoming), making the meal into a well-rounded foray not only into international flavors, but back into cooking and entertaining.

I can’t wait to do it all over again soon.

Lebanese Style Stuffed Eggplants

serves 4

baby eggplants (you’ll want 2 – 3 per person, depending on what size eggplants you can find. They’re also called Lebanese eggplants, Chinese eggplants, and Baby Bell eggplants, so hunt one to suit your fancy!)
½ cup long-grain or jasmine rice
¼ cup olive oil
3 tablespoons pine nuts
1 large onion, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
2 cups chicken stock or reduced-sodium chicken broth
1 (14 ½-ounce) can diced tomatoes in juice
pomegranate molasses (optional, this is my own addition)
1 lb ground lamb or beef chuck (not lean)
2 teaspoons ground allspice (the recipe calls for one, but I found it needed more)

lemon wedges
chopped flat-leaf parsley
plain yogurt, mixed with 2 Tbsp soaking water from some saffron threads
feta cheese
additional toasted pine nuts

Cut about half an inch off the bottom of each eggplant. Hollow each one out with a melon-ball cutter, working from the bottom end and leaving about a third of an inch of flesh along the interior walls. Rinse rice in a sieve under cold water until water runs clear. Drain well.

Heat oil in a twelve-inch heavy skillet over medium-high heat until it shimmers. Fry pine nuts, stirring frequently, until golden, about 3 minutes, then transfer with a slotted spoon to a bowl. Sauté onion and garlic, stirring occasionally, until golden, 6 to 8 minutes. Transfer half a cup of the cooked onion mixture to the bowl with pine nuts. To the skillet, add the stock, tomatoes, 3/4 teaspoon salt, and ¼ teaspoon pepper, and a good drizzle of pomegranate molasses. Set to a simmer, uncovered.

To the bowl with the onions and pine nuts, add the rinsed rice, ground meat, allspice, one teaspoon salt, and ½ teaspoon pepper. Mix well with your hands.

Stuff each eggplant with the rice-meat mixture, being careful not to pack too tightly (rice will expand during cooking). Transfer stuffed eggplants to skillet with tomato sauce and simmer, covered, carefully turning once halfway through,  50 minutes to one hour until the rice is cooked.  (I hadn’t chosen a large enough skillet for my sauce, so here I had to get a larger, deeper skillet from the cupboard, add the stuffed eggplants, and then pour my simmering sauce over them.)

When the eggplants are done, remove them with tongs or a slotted spoon to a serving platter. (You can keep them in the oven on low heat if you’re serving salads and appetizers.) Check the sauce: if it’s watery, turn up the heat and boil some of the liquid off until it’s a more silky, chunky consistency. (I found that the pomegranate molasses helped with this…you could try honey or regular molasses, too.) Serve the eggplants with the dish of sauce, or plate each one individually with a generous spoonful of the sauce. Offer guests a good selection of the garnishes.

adapted slightly from Gourmet

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