I have always been an eggplant lover. When it’s on the table I can’t get enough of it. Armenians have a tendency to overcook italian eggplants, especially when roasting them on a skewer (or rather a set of two, with one going through each end, around four are lined up). Optionally they insert raw pork fat inside to add some high-octane cholesterol. If you are not careful the flesh within will turn into a disturbing squid-like mass of crap that is unappetizing. The fat does not help matters, believe me.
My grandmother Clara invented a clever, rather irresistable eggplant dish that I have had my entire life. She took the fat-ass eggplants that are sold in US supermarkets, sliced them a half inch or so thick, sliced onion, tomato and green bell pepper. It would all be piled up in mounds, the eggplant slices on top and bottom, all held together by a flat toothpick. It would look like a sort of club sandwich in the end. She would saute ground beef with spices and parsley, then layer the mixture between the onion and tomato. Topped with a smear of tomato paste and another small onion slice, which resembled a cap. This would all rest in a Pyrex glass baking pan and cook for I believe a half-hour or so. I grew up with this dish, it was the ultimate comfort food to me. I have not attempted to replicate the dish, probably because it’s sacrilege. I know it will never come out the same.
Her dish was basically a variation of imam bayildi–also known as “the priest fainted” (it actually wasn’t an imam contrary to popular belief–GG). Rumor has it that a priest after sitting down to dinner had a forkful and passed out from the savory goodness of the dish. The apostolic priesthood has been reeling from the trauma ever since.
Imam bayildi is prepared in all sorts of ways apparently, aside from the boat-like dish where an Italian eggplant is sliced vertically after frying or roasting and filled with a veggie mixture consisting of garlic, tomatoes and onions and other assorted spices or greens before being baked. Most recipes seem to be a major pain in the ass to prepare, with lots of prepping, sautéing and roasting for seemingly hours on end involved.
In comes Linda to set it all straight. Linda, who is originally of the Russian clan, has managed to perfect the simplest Armenian and Anatolian dishes throughout her 45 year experience in the kitchen. Quite simply, she is an expert–sarma, dolma, sini kufta, kheyma/chi kufta, tahini bread, simit cookies, choreg, you name it. Back in the day she introduced manti–little toasted meat wontons that simmer in chicken broth and are served topped with garlic-infused yoghurt and ground sumac–to a family of Kharpertsis who never heard of the stuff. She’s always managed to perform wonders with a handful of ingredients on hand and a little magic that she is finally relaying to me.
My mother’s version of imam bayildi is straight and simple. After all the prep work–which consists simply of washing and chopping vegetables–it takes about a half hour or so to cook.
First off is the eggplant. I used about six italian eggplants and cut them in half to three-quarter inch slices then set them aside.
Next come the onions, about four-six small ones or a few large ones, and about six small, very ripe tomatoes–get it all out of the way first. No need to be precisely geometric with the onions, dears. Cut them fast before your sinuses empty out onto the chopping board.
The eggplant is fried in plain “light” olive oil—non-virgin since extra virgin olive oil has a low heat threshold and starts smoking in no time. Use only olive oil, no canola, corn, sunflower or whatever else. I recommend a deep, non-stick pot. I use the higher-end Cuisinart super-durable anodized nonstick cookware, not the flimsy teflon crap.
Once the eggplant becomes soft but not very mushy add “a shitload” of coarsely chopped garlic, which comes out to be about a small head or so, and continue sautéing. When the eggplants have browned and softened quite nicely add the tomatoes and onions. For the last batch I also threw in a single chopped red bell pepper just for the hell of it. Here’s my twist–add a heaping teaspoon of capers and sprinkle some Herbes de Provence in there, too. In my experience eggplant is divine with capers due to the miracles of culinary science. Don’t forget some fine sea salt and fresh ground black pepper. Mix it all up with a good spatula or your favorite stirring utensil then cover and simmer for 20 or so minutes until it’s all nice and soft, but not squishy by any means. Serve at room temperature, and optionally garnish with pignoli.