June 15, 2015

Imam Bayīldi - Turkish Eggplant Casserole

Traditional recipes for Imam Bayīldi involve stuffing hollowed out eggplants (or halved eggplants) with onions and spices, and braising them in a surfeit of best quality olive oil until tender. I've made some serious versions in the past, but they've always felt like a lot of work for something that is primarily a side dish to me (although I acknowledge that it makes a terrific main course for lunch). So, naturally, I was very excited to see this streamlined casserole version from Feed Me Phoebe.

The slightly scandalous name, which translates "The Priest Fainted" has entertaining stories as to why exactly, the Imam keeled over - everything from swooning at the deliciousness to fainting at the cost (or sheer amount) of the olive oil. Various other versions abound in the Eastern Mediterranean, varying the spices, or in some cases the vegetables. I assume that there are versions of this that date back to considerably before the introduction of the tomato, but it seems that the tomato-and-onion version is one of the most popular.

Imam Bayīldi

Serves 4

2 small (but not baby) eggplants
Kosher or coarse sea salt
Olive oil (about a third of a cup, total)
1 small yellow onion, finely diced
2 large garlic cloves, minced or pressed
1/4 teaspoon chile pepper flakes
Dash of cinnamon
Dash ground white pepper
400 mL canned diced tomatoes, with juices
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh parsley, divided

Prepare the eggplants by removing the cap and slicing lengthwise into 1/2 centimetre thick slabs. If you cut them into coins, it's much harder to get even coverage of the pan without gaps, so lengthwise is by far the better way to go for this dish. Dissolve a generous tablespoon of salt in hot water, and then add cold water until you have about six cups in a large bowl. Add the eggplant slices and allow them to brine for 10 minutes, or up to 8 hours. Drain, rinse, and press the slices firmly with paper towels or fresh linen towels to dry them out.

In a medium skillet (this one is a 24 centimetre steel skillet), heat a tablespoon of olive oil over medium-high heat until it just shimmers. Tilt the pan to ensure the bottom of the pan is well coated. Have a receiving plate standing by. Fry the dried-off eggplant slices, in batches, with a little extra olive oil added between each batch, just until golden on each side - about one or two minutes per side. Remove them to the nearby plate as they finish to make room for the next pieces.

Preheat your oven to 180 C (350 F) with a rack in the middle.

When all the eggplant has been fried, start building the sauce in the same (now emptied) skillet. Start by adding a little more olive oil (this is the last addition of olive oil), and then add the onions and garlic. Add a pinch of salt (not much, especially if your canned tomatoes are salty) the chile flakes, the cinnamon, the white pepper, and half of the parsley. Sauté until translucent and tender, and then add the diced tomatoes and their juices, and the tomato paste. Cook altogether until it starts to resemble a sauce, about four or five more minutes. Then remove about 2/3 to 3/4 of the sauce to a nearby bowl, wipe down the edges of the skillet, and start layering the eggplant into the skillet, on top of the bit of sauce that should nicely coat the bottom of the pan. Alternate the layers of eggplant with the layers of tomato sauce, and try to stack the eggplant slices in so they cover the surface of the pan in a neat, jigsaw like fashion. Make sure the top layer is sauce (ideally a thin layer of sauce so you can admire the prettiness of the eggplant slices), and place it, covered, in the preheated oven. If I use small eggplants, I only get two layers from them, but that works nicely with the amount of sauce.

Bake covered for 25 minutes, and then remove the cover and bake for another 20 minutes. Remove and allow to cool somewhat before serving. Garnish with remaining parsley.

This dish is often served at room temperature or even chilled, so it makes a surprisingly good picnic dish (or take to work dish). Paired with a nice chickpea salad, it's a beautiful, satisfying lunch.

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