I’m joining the cool kids, and am beginning to learn how to grow vegetables in the backyard. This week, a few of the eggplants look ready, so I wanted to find a delicate eggplant recipe to highlight a super-fresh vegetable pulled right from the garden.
After perusing all of my Middle Eastern cookbooks, I happened upon this Paula Wolfert recipe from The Cooking of the Eastern Mediterranean. Her long introduction to this recipe was exuberant and poetic, and I knew that if the stew made her this electric, then I would love it as well. Paula first tasted this dish at a conference in Greece on traditional Greek food-ways, at a special Lenten meal accompanied by clerical prayers, candles, and ancient Christian music.
This dish takes some time to cook — 2 1/2 hours in the oven, or all day in a crock pot — but is pretty easy to assemble. The advantage of slow-cooking is that the delicate eggplant softens to melt in your mouth, and you don’t have to worry about last-minute kitchen management before supper. I enjoyed smelling this cook all afternoon while I read textbooks in the next room. If you like something like a French ratatouille, this is somewhat similar in terms of ingredients, but is far superior and delicate because of the slow-cooking. The flavors have time to marry and soften.
Note that you’ll need to plan ahead and soak your dried chickpeas overnight. You could used canned chickpeas in a pinch, but the dried chickpeas have a better texture, and are cheaper. Paula Wolfert says the ultimate version of this stew is achieved from baking the stew in an earthenware pot, but I think most of us don’t own clay pots, or at least not yet. I baked mine in an enamed cast iron pot (Le Creseut) and it was lovely.
The large pepper and hot chili provide an appropriate soft echo of heat. Along with the eggplant, I was also able to use a larger pepper and a smaller chili (jalapeno) from the garden as well.
MACEDONIAN EGGPLANT AND CHICKPEA STEW
1/2 pound chickpeas, soaked overnight
1/4 cup olive oil
2 cups chopped onions
1 large green frying pepper
2 1/2 teaspoons chopped long green chili
1 1/2 teaspoons garlic
2 cups canned tomatoes with juice
1/2 cup chopped parsley
1 teaspoon oregano
1 bay leaf
Drain the chickpeas after soaking overnight. Place in a saucepan, add fresh water to cover, bring to a boil, and simmer, covered, over low heat until half-cooked, about 45 minutes. Set aside.
Meanwhile, peel the eggplant and cut into 1-inch cubes. Sprinkle lightly with salt and let stand in a colander to draw off excess moisture, about 45 minutes. Set aside.
Chop the onions. Chop both the large pepper and small chili into small pieces. Peel and crush the garlic with pinch of salt. I used a mortar and pestle for this.
Preheat the oven to 300F (if baking instead of using a crock pot).
Heat the oil in a 12-inch skillet. Add the onions, frying pepper, and chili. Stir 3 minutes. Add the eggplant and saute without browning it, 2 more minutes. Add the garlic, tomatoes with juice, parsley, oregano, and 1 teaspoon coarse salt. Cook at a simmer 10 minutes, stirring often.
In a 4-quart oven-proof cast iron pot, bean pot, clay casserole, or crock pot, mix the chickpeas, 1 3/4 cups of their cooking liquid, the bay leaf, and the contents of the skillet. Cover and bake in the oven 2 1/2 hours, or alternatively all day in the crock pot. The aroma will be extremely fragrant, and the chickpeas very tender. Remove the lid and bake 10 minutes more to allow excess moisture to evaporate.
This stew is so completely satisfying that Paula Wolfert suggests that it only needs to be accompanied by dense, chewy bread. I served it with a rice pilaf today.