Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Stuffed Eggplants w/ Pomegranate & Pine Nuts

In a previous post, I mentioned feasting under a whole moon on the beaches of Sinai. Even with the moon’s reflection off the water, stars were out in the millions and I gazed drunk with delight at the sky. My cohorts and I, sun-kissed and hungry after a day of swimming in perfectly clear, warm waters, were famished. We stumbled away from the beach to the bright bungalow for the meal that awaited us. Forever when I eat a pomegranate, I will think of this beach and our shared gluttony.

A, one of my closest college friends, was moving to Cairo for the year. I did what any selfless friend would do in the situation and sent her off properly, accompanying her with one week in Cairo and one in Lebanon. D, another friend of ours, is Egyptian. Even though she would be knee-deep in her studies (a blossoming PhD), D offered to take us to her beach hideaway for a weekend away from the craze that is Cairo. (D also introduced me to roasted pigeon on this trip, a succulent feast that should be eaten with your hands, courtside the main Cairo market.)

D’s mother is yet another food goddess incarnate I have met in the voyage of life. Upon our arrival, she fluttered about, pushing her homemade and fresh delights onto us: Stuffed grape leaves, stuffed eggplants, chicken, lamb, flatbreads, olives, fruits, and countless varieties of feta. At each meal we merrily plunged more and more food into our bellies, and D’s mother, in true Middle Eastern hospitality, kept pushing more onto us. In between bites I discussed recipes with her, especially for my favorite, the stuffed eggplants. We would finish each meal with fresh brewed Arabic coffee on the roof, smelling the salted air now tainted with cardamom, while D’s mother would hurry off to bed in preparation for her dawn beach appointment.

These eggplants are sweet, savory and delicious, but a poor imitation of perfection (they also look like a ruptured artery in the picture). If I could sweep D’s mother away from the beach to make these for me I gladly would. Even better, I prefer spending my days with her on the beaches of Sinai being stuffed to the gills with her home-cooked amusements.

Serves 6. Prep time= 45 min. Cook time= 45 min.
8 small (4-5 inch in length) eggplants (if you can find smaller ones, by all means use them-- just purchase more. They are easier to clean and will be more flavorful.)
¾- 1 lb ground beef (or lamb)
1 cup wild rice
1 onion, chopped
4-5 garlic cloves, minced
5 Tbl pine nuts, toasted
5 Tbl pomegranate molasses (available at specialty, Asian and Middle Eastern stores)
8 fresh mint leaves, chopped
juice of ½ lemon
1 pomegranate, deseeded

1) In a saucepot, begin the rice according to the directions on the package
2) While rice is cooking, in a large saucepan, on medium heat, add meat, onion and garlic. Break apart meat and cook until meat is browned, stir occasionally.
3) While meat-onion-garlic is cooking, toast the pine nuts (in a toaster oven on medium or 5-10 min in the oven on broil) until lightly browned. Deseed the pomegranate.
4) Hollow out the eggplants: Clean and cut the tops off. Use a small knife to start the process then a spoon to scrape the remaining meat (and mostly seeds) out. Be careful not to puncture or tear the skin (eggplant skin is fairly tough pre-cooked so this should not be too much of a problem). Hollow out the eggplant as much as possible. It is okay to leave a small perimeter of meat along the edges. (To do this quickly takes a little practice so keep an eye on the meat and rice. If either are finished just turn the burners off).
5) At this point, the rice should have about 10-15 min cook time remaining. Preheat the oven to 350F. When meat is done, turn stovetop off, add pine nuts, pomegranate molasses, mint, lemon juice, and pomegranate seeds. When rice is complete, add rice to the meat mixture (or add the meat to the rice if the saucepan is not large enough). Stir until evenly blended.
6) Using a spoon, stuff the filling into the eggplants, packing it in well (as you see ice cream scoopers pack a fresh pint of ice cream). Once done, cover with aluminum foil and bake on middle rack for 35-45 min, until eggplants are soft.
7) Keep any remaining filling to stuff more eggplants, zucchini or bell peppers—or just eat it on the side.

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