Lamb and Nut-Stuffed Aubergine Bake

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From Reem Kassis’ new book ‘The Palestinian Table, Authentic Modern Middle Eastern Home Cooking – 150 delicious, easy-to-follow recipes inspired by three generations of family tradition’ published by Phaidon.

‘My great-great-grandmother brought this recipe with her from Syria when she moved to Palestine,’ says author Reem Kassis. ‘She then passed it down to my great-grandmother, who passed it on to my Teta Asma, who gave it to my mother, who passed it on to me. There is something to be said of recipes that stand the test of time and continue to please generation after generation. This is a spectacular dish that is definitely worth the effort.’

Preparation time: 45 minutes
Cooking time: 30 minutes
Serves 6

Ingredients

For the filling
1 quantity Toasted Pine Nuts (see below)
1 quantity Lamb with Onion and Spices (see below)
1 teaspoon sumac (optional)

For the aubergines
6 medium sized or 12 baby eggplants (aubergines) (about 3½ lb/1.5 kg) vegetable oil, for frying (see Note)
12 oz/350 g tomatoes (about 3 medium), diced
olive oil, for drizzling
1½ cups (12 fl oz/350 ml) chicken broth (stock), homemade or store-bought, or water
½ teaspoon Nine Spice Mix (see below)
1 tablespoon pomegranate molasses
salt and black pepper

To serve
— Rice or bread

Instructions

1. Prepare the filling by frying the pine nuts then making the Lamb with Onion and Spices in the same pan. Combine with the sumac, if using, and set aside. This can be prepared a day or two in advance and refrigerated until ready to use.

2. Using a vegetable peeler, peel alternating strips from the skin of each eggplant (aubergine) to create a striped effect. Cut the eggplants in half lengthwise, set in a colander, sprinkle generously with salt, and allow to sit for about 1 hour. When ready, rinse and pat dry with paper towel. If you are using baby eggplants, keep them whole, skip the salting, and pierce with a knife before frying.

3. Pour enough vegetable oil into a large skillet (frying pan) to reach about ¾ inch/2 cm up the sides. When the oil is hot, pan-fry the eggplants in batches, taking care because the oil may splutter from the water, and turn over once until golden brown on both sides, about 10 minutes. Remove from the oil and drain on paper towels. Continue, until all the eggplants are fried.

4. Preheat the oven to 375F/190C/Gas Mark 5. Place the eggplants cut side up in an ovenproof dish, approximately 12 x 16 inches/30 x 40 cm. With a pointed knife, make an incision halfway into the flesh, leaving 1¼ inch/3 cm at each end. Gently push apart at the incision with your fingers to make a large pocket and stuff each eggplant with the filling. If any filling is left, scatter it around in the dish.

5. Top the eggplants with the diced tomatoes, scattering any extra in the dish as well. Drizzle the tomatoes with olive oil and sprinkle with some salt and black pepper. Combine the broth (stock) or water, Nine Spice Mix, pomegranate molasses, and 2 teaspoons of salt. Stir until combined then pour into the dish. Bake in the oven for 30 minutes.

6. Remove from oven and allow to sit for at least 5 minutes before serving with rice or bread.

Note: To roast the eggplants instead of frying, brush with oil and cook in a 425F/220C/Gas Mark 7 oven for 20–30 minutes.

TOASTED PINE NUTS OR ALMONDS
Toasted nuts are one of my guilty pleasures. They add so much texture to food and there are very few dishes that aren’t enhanced by their presence. You can use them to decorate any rice dish or casserole, you can mix them with stuffings, you can sprinkle them on salads, you can even eat them alone. I generally fry them in olive oil, although any vegetable oil, and even butter, will do. Make sure you remove the pan from the stove when they are one shade lighter than you need because they will continue to cook and darken for a short while after.

Preparation time: 5 minutes
Cooking time: 5 minutes
Makes 1 cup (4 oz/120 g)

1 cup (4 oz/120 g) pine nuts or flaked almonds (do not fry both together as timing is different)
Vegetable oil or butter, for frying

Instructions
1. Place a small skillet (frying pan) over medium-high heat and pour in enough oil to coat the bottom, around 1 tablespoon. Add the nuts and stir to coat evenly with the oil. Lower the heat and continue to stir until the nuts are a very light golden colour.

2. Remove the pan from heat and drain the nuts onto a plate lined with paper towels. You can use immediately or, once cooled, store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks.

Note: Pine nuts are perfect when mixed with foods such as Spiced Lamb and Rice Pilaf, Freekeh Pilaf with Lamb and Pine Nuts and Lamb with Onion and Spices as they retain their crunch. Almonds, however, tend to lose their crunch when mixed so it’s best to sprinkle them on top of dishes before serving.

LAMB WITH ONION AND SPICES
Although hosseh is mostly used to stuff a variety of vegetables and pastries, whenever I smell my mother preparing this in the morning, I insist on eating a plate of it with toasted pita bread. The crunch from the nuts, the richness from the olive oil and meat, and the warmth from the onions and spices all come together in a magical way. This basic version is made with ground (minced) meat, onions, and spices but I almost always add pine nuts, and sometimes walnuts as well. If you do use nuts, it’s easiest to fry them first, remove with a slotted spoon and set aside, and then continue with the dish using the same pan.

Preparation time: 10 minutes
Cooking time: 15 minutes
Makes about 1 lb 2 oz/500 g

Ingredients
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 quantity Toasted Pine Nuts (see below)
2 onions, finely diced
1 lb 2 oz (500 g) ground (minced) lamb or beef, or a combination of both
1 teaspoon Nine Spice Mix (see below)
1 teaspoon salt

Instructions
1. Heat the olive oil in a skillet (frying pan) over medium high heat and fry the nuts, if using. Remove from the pan with a slotted spoon and set aside.

2. Add the onions to the same pan and fry over medium-high heat for 3—5 minutes, stirring, until translucent and starting to brown. Add the meat, spice mix, and salt and cook for 6—8 minutes, or until the water has evaporated and the meat is nicely browned, breaking up any lumps with a wooden spoon.

3. Remove from heat and mix in the nuts, if using. At this point, the mixture can be used as called for in a recipe, or cooled and stored in the refrigerator for up to 3 days, or the freezer for up to 1 month.

NINE SPICE MIX

I can still remember walking through Jerusalem’s old city as a child with my mother, going from vendor to vendor and buying different whole spices in bulk. My mother would roast the spices when we got home and the house would be drunken on the fresh, earthy aromas. For years after I left home, she continued doing this, always sending me a jar of freshly roasted and ground spices. Today I roast my own, but when I do, the smell always transports me back to that time.

Preparation time: 5 minutes
Cooking time: 15 minutes
Makes about 3 ½ oz/100 g

Ingredients

6 tablespoons allspice berries
6 cassia bark or cinnamon sticks
3 tablespoons coriander seeds
1 tablespoon black peppercorns
1 teaspoon cardamom seeds
½ teaspoon cumin seeds
10 cloves
2 blades of mace
½ nutmeg, crushed

Instructions

1. Place all the ingredients in a large skillet (frying pan) over medium-low heat. Stir with a wooden spoon periodically to ensure the spices do not burn, until you begin to smell the aroma of the spices, about 10 minutes.

2. Remove the pan from heat and set aside to cool completely, about 1 hour. This step is crucial because if the spices are not cooled properly, they will form a paste when ground rather than a powder.

3. Place all the roasted spices into a heavy-duty spice grinder and grind until you achieve a fine powder consistency. Store the spice mix in an airtight container. It will keep for several months although the aroma will fade with time.

 Note: This spice mix is featured in many of the dishes in this book, lending them a uniquely Palestinian flavor. It is my mother’s own blend but feel free to adjust to suit your taste, or you can substitute with store-bought baharat or Lebanese seven spice mix for an equally tasty, albeit slightly different, flavor profile.

You can buy The PALESTINIAN TABLE by Reem Kassis, published by Phaidon here.  It makes an ideal Christmas gift.

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