Even though we recently returned from Greece, I’m still craving Greek food. Luckily, when I went to Costco to restock our supplies, they had fresh eggplant and figs. Combined with the lamb, crusty bread, and cheese Costco always has on hand (and a quick trip to the farmers’ market for a pile of vegetables), we had everything necessary for a Greek feast. Or two. Or ten.
I was particularly happy about the eggplant. They were in perfect condition: firm flesh and shiny, unmarred skin. Unlike many eggplant sold in Anchorage, these were picked small, and hadn’t developed a large mass of seeds inside.
The Costco eggplant came 4 to the 1.75-pound bag. To be efficient and save energy, I oven-roasted them all at one time. (If you want to store eggplant raw, here’s how.) Half the roasted eggplant went immediately into Melitzanosalata; the other two I refrigerated to save for Hünkar Beğendi.
Fire-grilled eggplant tastes better in recipes than oven-roasted but, the day I cooked eggplant, we were too damn tired from the trip home to start a fire. To add smokiness to my Melitzanosalata, I added a grilled-over-a-gas-burner red pepper. It’s lucky there were only two of us; the pepper-laden Melitzanosalata disappeared quickly.
I used a different technique to add smokiness to Hünkar Beğendi. I had roasted 2 eggplants whole, and stored them without breaking the skins (if you break the skins, the eggplant juices leak out). I took the eggplant directly out of the refrigerator and charred their skins over a gas burner. Because the eggplants were cold when I started charring them, they didn’t leak juices over the stove, as I 'd feared they might. This “smoking” technique was quick, easy, worked well, and added lots of flavor. I’ll do it again.
Hünkar Beğendi is a famous Turkish eggplant dish that’s also made in Greece, particularly in areas where many people have roots in Constantinople (Istanbul), Smyrna (Izmir), or other parts of Anatolia (Asia Minor). Translations for “Hünkar Beğendi” abound: Sultan’s Delight, Sultan’s Pleasure, The Sultan Liked It, Her Majesty’s Delight, Her Majesty’s Favorite, and The Sultan Approved.
The origins of Hünkar Beğendi are murky. Some say the dish was created in the early-17th century for Sultan Murad IV (who was half-Greek). Others say it was created for a French empress in the late 19th century. My favorite version of this story is in The Art of Turkish Cooking by Neset Eren (New York 1969):
When the Empress Eugénie, the wife of Napoleon III, was in Istanbul as the guest of Sultan Abdulaziz, the Ottoman emperor, she fell in love with eggplant purée, at that time a specialty of the Topkapi Palace. She asked her host if he would allow his chef to teach her cook how to prepare it. The sultan obliged. The next day the French chef requested an audience with the empress and begged to be excused from this impossible task. “I took my book and my scales to the Turkish chef,” he said, “and he threw them out. ‘An imperial chef,’ he told me, ‘cooks with his feelings, his eyes, his nose.’” The empress returned to France without the recipe for her favorite dish.In Lords of the Horizons: A History of the Ottoman Empire (London 1998), historian Jason Goodwin repeats the Empress Eugénie story. However, in Η Οθωμανική Μαγειρική: 99 Παλατιανές Συνταγές (Ottoman Cooking: 99 Recipes from the Palace) (Athens 2004), an extremely interesting and well-researched book, author Marianna Gerasimos says:
I searched hard to find how and when the famous eggplant puree, called Hünkar Beğendi, entered Ottoman cuisine. … There are many rumors and allegations about [it being made for Empress Eugénie] but, for now, there is no written historical evidence of this.Although Empress Eugénie may not have feasted on Hünkar Beğendi, I certainly have. In the same way that mashed potatoes are exactly right with turkey and gravy, Hünkar Beğendi and Lamb Stew are wonderful together.
Eggplant-Red Pepper Dip (Melitzanosalata) (Μελιτζανοσαλάτα με Πιπεριές)
Makes 1 cup
The smoky flavor of eggplant grilled over an open fire makes the best Melitzanosalata, although it’s not absolutely necessary to success. When I don’t want to start a fire, I oven-roast the eggplant and add a grilled red pepper for smokiness. Although you can make Melitzanosalata in a food processor, I far prefer the more rustic texture that results from knife-chopping the eggplant. Serve with crusty bread and olives for a tasty appetizer, or as a flavorful accompaniment to grilled meat.
1 1-pound eggplant, or 2 1/2-pound eggplants
1 red bell pepper
2 cloves garlic
1/2 tsp. salt
Freshly ground black pepper
4-6 tsp. white wine vinegar
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
Preheat the oven to 400°F.
Rub the whole, uncut eggplant with olive oil, and place on a rimmed baking sheet. Bake for 45 – 70 minutes, depending on the size of the eggplant, or until the eggplant collapses and is cooked all the way through. (Better yet, grill the eggplant over fire until it’s cooked through.) Peel the eggplant, cut it into large chunks, and place the chunks in a colander for 15 minutes to let some of the juices drain off. When the eggplant is cool enough to handle, use your hands to squeeze out as much liquid as you can.
Roast and clean the pepper (see Note below).
Place the eggplant flesh on a cutting board, finely chop, and put in a bowl. Finely chop the roasted red pepper and add to the bowl. Purée the garlic by mashing it into the salt, and add to the bowl. Add freshly ground black pepper, 4 tsp. vinegar, and extra virgin olive oil, and mix well. Taste and add vinegar or salt, as needed.
To serve, spread the Melitzanosalata evenly over a plate and drizzle with a small amount of extra virgin olive oil.
Note on Roasting and Cleaning Peppers: The traditional method of roasting peppers is over a hot wood fire, but you can also roast them on a gas grill, directly on a gas burner (without a pan), under the broiler, or by baking in a 450° oven for 30 minutes. Unless you are baking them in the oven, turn the peppers frequently as they roast to ensure the skins char evenly and the flesh doesn’t overcook. When the skin is completely blackened, place the peppers in a paper bag and close it up for 5 minutes. Hot pepper flesh releases steam in the closed bag, loosening the charred skin and making it easier to peel.
Once the peppers are cool enough to handle, remove the burned skin from the softened flesh with your fingers or a paper towel, gently scraping away any stuck bits with a knife. Resist the temptation to rinse the peppers in water, as doing so washes away too much flavor. If necessary, dip your fingers in a bowl of water to release clinging charred pepper skins. Remove the seeds and any white pulp from the inside of the pepper.
Beef can be substituted for lamb in the stew; meatballs and grilled meats also go well with Hünkar Beğendi. In Anchorage, the best price for lamb is often on boneless leg roasts at Costco. I cut out and grill a couple “steaks” from the center of the roast, and then make stew out of each end. If you use lamb with bones, cook them in the stew for extra flavor. Unlike Melitzanosalata, smokiness is an essential flavor in Hünkar Beğendi. If you don’t have access to a grill, oven-roast the eggplant as described in the Melitzanosalata recipe, refrigerate them without puncturing the skin, and thoroughly char the skins directly over a gas burner.
1 1/2 – 1 3/4 lb. boneless lamb, excess fat removed
Freshly ground black pepper
2 Tbsp. olive oil
2 cups diced yellow onion, 1/4” dice
1 Tbsp. minced garlic
1 tsp. Aleppo pepper or 1/2 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes (optional)
1 14.5 ounce can (or 2 cups fresh) diced tomatoes
1 Tbsp. dried oregano, crushed
2 Tbsp. tomato paste
2 cups water
Smoky Eggplant Purée:
1 1-pound eggplant, or 2 1/2-pound eggplants
2 Tbsp. lemon juice
1 cup whole milk
2 Tbsp. butter
3 Tbsp. all-purpose flour
1/2 cup grated kasseri or Romano cheese
Pinch of nutmeg
Make the Tomato-Lamb Stew: Wash and dry the meat, cut it into 1” cubes, and season on both sides with salt and freshly ground black pepper. In a large pot, cook the lamb in olive oil until it is browned all over. Stir in the onions, lightly season with salt and freshly ground black pepper, and sauté until the onions begin to turn golden. Stir in the garlic and Aleppo pepper and cook for 1 minute. Stir in the tomatoes, oregano, tomato paste, and water, bring to a boil, cover, turn down the heat as low as possible, and simmer for 1 hour. Remove the cover and simmer for 30-60 minutes, or until the lamb is very tender and the sauce the thickness you prefer. Stir the sauce from time to time and, if it starts sticking, add a little bit more water. Taste and add salt and freshly ground black pepper, as needed. (The stew can be made ahead, refrigerated, and reheated just before serving.)
Make the Smoky Eggplant Purée: Grill the eggplant whole until it softens, collapses, and is slightly charred on all sides (or oven-roast and char as described in note above). Peel the eggplant, cut it into large chunks, and place the chunks in a colander for 15 minutes to let some of the juices drain off. When the eggplant is cool enough to handle, use your hands to squeeze out as much liquid as you can. Place the eggplant flesh on a cutting board, finely chop, and sprinkle with the lemon juice.
Warm the milk over low heat or in the microwave. Melt the butter in a saucepan, mix in the flour and cook for two minutes, stirring constantly; be careful not to brown this mixture. Slowly stir in the warm milk and cook, stirring, until the sauce is thick and smooth. Add the eggplant, cheese, and nutmeg and cook, stirring constantly, until the ingredients are thoroughly combined. Taste and add salt, as needed.
To serve, spoon some Smoky Eggplant Purée onto a plate and top with the Tomato-Lamb Stew.
This is my entry for Weekend Herb Blogging, hosted this week by Cinzia from Cindystar.
Bob, in a rabbit stupor