I’m writing about Imam Bayaldi, a favourite middle-eastern aubergine dish (it means ‘the imam fainted’), specifically in order that my friend Martin, who has a vegetarian to entertain, has something new to cook. Sorry Martin – I’ve been meaning to get round to this for ages. I guess I just like meat.
It’s odd how many dishes from places all over the world have names like this, where religious men are felled by dinner. There’s Buddha Jumps over the Wall soup (a Chinese soup so good, apparently, that even the Buddha was driven to interrupt his meditation with worldly gymnastics – I wouldn’t know, because it’s so expensive I can’t bring myself to order it). There’s Strozzapreti, an Italian pasta which translates as ‘strangled priests’, apparently because they are so good a venal priest choked himself to death when gorging on them. The imam in the case of Imam Bayaldi has, at least, only been driven to unconsciousness rather than unseemly jumping or choking, so I suppose he wins.
There’s a lot of olive oil in this recipe. Aubergines are notorious for soaking oil and flavourings up; it’s what makes them so delicious. If you’re feeling bad about your waistline, go for a jog tomorrow. Life’s too short to avoid aubergines.
To make two stuffed aubergines you’ll need:
1 red onion, chopped
6 cloves garlic, crushed
1 celery heart, chopped finely (make sure you get the yellow/green leaves here)
2 medium tomatoes, chopped
1 green pepper, chopped
3 bay leaves
1 small handful fresh oregano
1 small handful fresh mint
1 shall handful fresh parsley (plus extra to garnish)
250ml chicken stock (substitute vegetable stock if serving to vegetarians)
Salt and pepper
Begin by slicing the aubergines in half lengthways and use a knife to carefully hollow them out, making them into boat shapes. Chop the flesh you’ve removed into 1cm squares, and put it in a large covered bowl. Use a serrated knife (like a tomato, the aubergine has a tough skin and soft flesh, so it’s easier to cut with a serrated knife) to remove long strips of skin from the outside of the boats (see picture). This will help the aubergines’ flesh take on flavour evenly from the stock and olive oil. Try as hard as you can to avoid puncturing all the way through to the inside of the hollowed out shells, but don’t worry; it’s not the end of the world if you do.
Chop the onion, celery, tomatoes and the green pepper into pieces about the same size as the aubergine pieces you chopped earlier. Mix these with the aubergine flesh, the garlic and the herbs (apart from the bay leaves), a few twists of the pepper grinder and a teaspoon of salt. If you can find some flat-leaved parsley (which does have a subtly different flavour), use that – you can see from the pictures that all I had in the garden was curly-leaved parsley. Add three tablespoons of olive oil to the bowl and mix well.
Place the aubergine shells in a baking tin with reasonably high sides. Fill the aubergines with the mixture in the bowl, and tuck the bay leaves between them. Drizzle with some extra oil so the edges of the aubergines are well-lubricated, then pour the chicken stock into the bottom of the dish so it laps around the sides of the aubergines. Pour another five tablespoons of olive oil into the dish with the chicken stock.
Bake the aubergines, covered with some aluminium foil, for 45 minutes at 180°C (350°F), until they are soft. Remove from the dish and discard any remaining stock and oil in the pan. Serve immediately – the couscous from yesterday’s post is a fantastic accompaniment (and, like this dish, can be made vegetarian by swapping the chicken stock for some vegetable stock). You can avoid aubergines which (as in the photograph at the top of the page) look like a chia pet by the simple expedient of not garnishing them with way too much curly parsley. I blame the very large glass of retsina I was drinking at the time.