JANUARY 24, 2018
There's this great episode of This American Life from a few years ago, where Sarah Koenig interviews her mother about her list of the seven things you're not supposed to talk about at a dinner party. One or two things on the list are clearly inappropriate for dinner conversation, but most things made her list because they're just so boring to talk about. So naturally, I thought it would be a great idea to write a blog post that encompasses (not one but) two of the things we're not supposed to talk about (in this case, diet and health)-and hopefully you'll find me interesting anyway. So, here it goes-I'm Kathryn, and I'm a Middle Eastern food blogger who can't eat eggplant.
When I was a kid, I used to eat eggplant all the time-we would always order baba ganoush with our takeout, and every summer my mom would grill up platters of portobello mushrooms, zucchini, and big thick-cut eggplant slices. When I was a vegetarian in high school, I ate even more eggplant (mostly because I thought it was a good source of vegetarian protein, because I was kind of clueless). And then eventually, it started making me really sick whenever I would eat it. My throat would get itchy, my tongue would swell, and my whole body would rebel. So finally, I had to give it up for good, and I haven't had any in over a decade.
This means that recipe developing with eggplant is very hit or miss (and not blogging about eggplant is out of the question, because it's an important part of the cuisine). Sometimes I make something with eggplant, feed it to friends and family, and they love it from the start. In this case, I would make it a couple more times with their minor suggestions, until they let me know it's perfect, and then the final recipe would make it to my blog. But if an eggplant recipe doesn't work out the first time, then it is simply dead on arrival, because there's no way for me to figure out how to fix something I can't actually taste. One of the best ways to avoid this DOA scenario is to stick to family recipes, which are already vetted by generations. And this, sheikh mahshi, is one of those recipes.
Sheikh mahshi (also know as sheikh el-mahshi) are not only beautiful but they're also delicious, or so I've been told (I did taste the stuffing before it went into the eggplants, and it is absolutely scrumptious). My grandmother taught me how she makes sheikh mahshi, and I barely tinkered with her method to come up with the recipe below. It's my husband's favorite thing my grandmother makes, and I hope everyone who can consume eggplant enjoys this dish a little extra for me.
Wash the eggplants, and then peel about 4 stripes down their sides (as pictured). Cut as close to the stem as possible to remove them (discard the stems), and then slice about 1/4 inch off the top. Save these, so you can use them as caps.
Core the eggplants with a zucchini corer. Sprinkle their insides evenly with the 3/4 teaspoon salt and set them open-side-down to drain. Drain for 30 minutes to an hour.
Preheat the oven to 400° F.
While you're waiting on the eggplants, prepare the filling: Heat a large skillet over medium heat for about 2 minutes. Add 1 tablespoon of the butter, followed by the pine nuts, and cook, stirring constantly, for about 5 minutes, until the pine nuts are lightly toasted. Remove to a medium bowl.
Wipe down the skillet and add 1 tablespoon olive oil, followed by the onions. Stir occasionally, until they soften, about 7 minutes. Remove to the pine nut bowl.
Crack a window, turn on your exhaust, turn the heat up to high, and wait 1 minute. Add 1/2 teaspoon olive oil to the skillet, swirl to coat, and immediately add half of the diced meat and 1/2 teaspoon of salt. Cook, stirring every minute or two, until it browns (about 5 to 6 minutes). Remove the first batch of meat to a bowl, and immediately add another 1/2 teaspoon of oil and the rest of the meat. Let it cook until it browns, which will take a little less time than the first batch (about 3 to 4 minutes). Remove to the bowl and let it cool for 2 minutes, then stir in the parsley and allspice. Remove the skillet from heat, and don't bother washing it yet (unless the bits stuck to it have turned from brown to black).
Stuff the eggplants with as much of the meat mixture as will fit. Take the reserved caps and squeeze them into the tops so they stay in place. **
Combine the leftover meat mixture with the diced tomatoes and return to the skillet. Simmer for about 2 minutes over medium heat, just to meld the flavors.
Pour half of the tomato-meat sauce into the bottom of a casserole dish. Arrange the stuffed eggplants on theirs sides. Pour the other half of the tomato-meat sauce over the tops, pushing big chunks of meat and tomato off the tops, so they fall down the sides. Drizzle the top with 1 tablespoon of olive oil, or go over it with cooking spray. Cover everything with foil, and bake for 30 minutes. Uncover and cook for another 10 minutes. Sprinkle with parsley (optional) and serve.
* You can easily find zucchini corers online, and in some Middle Eastern grocery stores. In addition to making dolma, they can be used for lots more (see the note at the end of my dolma recipe).
** This is a really hard action to describe, but let me try: you have to compress the edges of the cap so that it's a little convex, and then work it into the top of the eggplant. When it is sitting in the top, the cap will flatten and it will be hard to remove it because the edges will catch.