Saturday, October 24, 2009

Lebanese Style Stuffed Eggplant and Za'atar Flatbreads

Lebanese Style Stuffed Eggplant

On the day that I set out to make this recipe I checked my favorite food blog (Smitten Kitchen, as if I haven't said it enough), and guess what new recipe Deb had posted?  That's right, these Lebanese stuffed eggplants.  Well, you know what they say about great minds: they love eggplant.  At least I think that's what they say, I'm not quite sure.  Since Deb has a natural talent for food photography and I, well, sometimes I can get a picture that is not completely blurry, I was a little hesitant about posting this recipe.  But how could I resist telling you how I once again chose to cook something from Andrew's least favorite foods list?  But don't feel too bad for Andrew; eggplant is on the low end of his food-hate spectrum (he loved the eggplant parm subs), and this dish was so good, I'm pretty sure it would have been a hit even if eggplant topped the list.

Baby eggplants

If you read my last blog entry, you are likely to get a sense of deja vu when I tell you that I was inspired to make this dish when I spotted the adorable baby eggplants at Whole Foods (I found them again, for a fraction of the price, at our local Asian/Latino market... oh well, bygones).  Even though my last eggplant dish was a disappointment, I couldn't pass up the cuteness of these miniature aubergines or the chance to redeem myself in the eggplant cooking department.  When I brought them home, I turned to the soon-to-be-extinct Gourmet website (tear) and did a recipe search.  This recipe was the second result (after an eggplant tarte tatin, intriguing), and these Lebanese-style eggplants stuffed with allspice-scented jasmine rice, pine nuts, and ground lamb and braised in a tomato sauce sounded absolutely perfect.

Lebanese Style Stuffed Eggplant

I am happy to say that this dish surpassed my expectations (so much so that I want to scrap my previous dinner-making plans and track down more baby eggplants).  The eggplant becomes so tender as it cooks and is infused with the flavors of the lamb, onion, allspice, and tomato.  It was like a more complex version of the stuffed cabbage that I grew up with and loved. While these were a bit of work to assemble (you have to hollow out each eggplant with a melon baller) once they are stuffed and in the pan there is practically no maintenance, and it has a great presentation.

Za'atar Flatbreads

To go with these eggplants I made some flatbreads topped with Za'atar, a Middle Eastern spice blend (I bought a pre-mixed blend of sumac, thyme, salt, and sesame seeds, but it is easy to make it yourself).  My friend JoAnn mentioned that her family makes biscuits with Za'atar (how awesome does that sound?), but when I was doing a recipe search I found this flatbread recipe on RecipeZaar and I decided to give it a whirl.  I liked the recipe, but next time I would roll the dough thinner, and perhaps add a bit more salt.  They didn't entirely live up to my expectations, but Andrew loved them and we happily dunked our flatbreads in the tomato sauce.  I am definitely looking forward to repeating this Lebanese feast, and I am especially excited for lunch the day after, because the leftovers were even more delicious the next day.

Za'atar Flatbreads

Lebanese Style Stuffed Eggplant
Gourmet (August 2009 web-exclusive recipe)

This recipe was very good as written, but next time I make this I might cut back on the allspice and add a bit of cumin to the filling.  Also, be very careful of burning the pine nuts.  The recipe says to cook them for three minutes, until golden, but mine turned brown well before that (and were a deep brown by the time I was able to get them out of the oil).

6 (5 to 6 inch long) bambino (also called Baby Bell) eggplants (about 6 oz. each)
1/2 cup long-grain or jasmine rice
1/4 cup olive oil
3 Tbsp pine nuts
1 large onion, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
2 cups chicken stock or reduced-sodium chicken broth
1 (14 and 1/2 oz. can) diced tomatoes in juice
3/4 lb ground lamb or beef chuck (not lean)
1 tsp ground allspice
1/2 lemon
3 Tbsp chopped flat-leaf parsley

Hollow out each eggplant with a melon baller, working from bottom end and leaving about 1/3 inch flesh along interior walls [I found it easier to start by cutting a small piece off the bottom with a knife; my melon baller did not do well cutting through the eggplant skin].

Rinse rice in a sieve under cold water until water runs clear.  Drain well.

Heat oil in a 12 inch heavy skillet over medium-high heat until oil shimmers.  Fry pine nuts, stirring frequently, until golden, about 3 minutes [see note above], then transfer with a slotted spoon to a bowl.  Saute onion and garlic, stirring occasionally, until golden, 6 to 8 minutes.  Transfer 1/2 cup onion mixture to bowl with pine nuts.  Add stock, tomatoes, 3/4 teaspoon salt, and 1/4 teaspoon pepper to skillet and simmer, uncovered, while stuffing eggplant.

Add rice, meat, allspice, 1 teaspoon salt, and 1/2 teaspoon pepper to bowl with onion mixture and mix well with your hands.

Stuff eggplant with meat mixture being careful not to pack tightly (rice will expand during cooking).  Transfer stuffed eggplants to skillet with tomato sauce and simmer, covered, carefully turning once, until rice is cooked through, 50 minutes to 1 hour (cut one in half to test).

If sauce is watery, transfer eggplant to plate and boil sauce, stirring occasionally, until thickened slightly, 3 to 5 minutes, then adjust seasoning if necessary.  Return stuffed eggplants to sauce.  Squeeze lemon over dish and sprinkle with parsley before serving.

Za'atar Flatbreads
Adapted from RecipeZaar

500 grams flour (about 3 1/2 cups)
1/2 tsp sugar
2 tsp active dry yeast
1/2 tsp salt
1 1/3 cups warm water
2 Tbsp Za'atar
2-4 Tbsp olive oil

Stir together flour, sugar, yeast, and salt in a large bowl.  Make a well in the center and add the water, stirring until the dough comes together.

Turn dough out to a lightly floured surface and knead until smooth and elastic, about 10 minutes. Lightly grease the bowl and add dough, turning to coat.  Cover bowl with plastic wrap and let dough rise until doubled, about 1 and 1/2 hours.

Preheat oven, with pizza stone if using, to 425 degrees (The original recipe calls for 2 large, oiled baking sheets to be preheated).

When dough has doubled, turn onto counter and punch down.  Knead for about two minutes, then divide into 8 portions.  Roll each portion into a ball and flatten slightly.  Cover with plastic and let rest about 20 minutes.

On a lightly floured surface roll each ball of dough into a circle, 1/4 inch thick.  Brush with olive oil.  In a small bowl mix Za'atar with enough olive oil to form a paste.  Spread Za'atar paste on each dough circle.

Transfer bread to hot baking stone (or oiled sheet pans) and bake until golden brown, 10 to 15 minutes.  Remove from oven and serve warm.

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