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Stuffed Eggplants with Quince, A Vegetarian Odyssey

Stuffed Eggplant with Quince and Stuffed Onion Rolls

I did it. It was 90+ degrees outside yesterday afternoon and felt a lot hotter inside when I started cranking the oven to try this dish right away rather than wait for the weekend, but I’m just no good with delayed gratification.

If I have the mini-eggplants and I have the quinces and I have the tamarind concentrate (homemade! two days ago! it’s practically crying out to be used already!) and I have the “hashu” filling for the vegetables sitting in the fridge smelling wonderful, then it just doesn’t matter that Rosh Hashanah dinner is in what, maybe 3 hours, and I still haven’t braided the challot, to say nothing of baked them. Obviously I’ve gotta try this extra-credit dish out RIGHT NOW.

Actually, I figured the house was going to be heating up anyway once I started baking the challot, so why not get it all over with at once?

There was a more serious reason to try it. Today in services I was still thinking about Dweck’s book and her recounting of her parents’ horror in 1947, when, about to return from a vacation in Europe, they learned the government back home had started massacring whole Jewish communities in reaction to the announcement that the UN had accepted Israel as a Jewish state.

The Syrian Jewish community fled wherever they could–just as my family did under the pogroms in the Ukraine back in the 1880s and 1920s. Dweck maintains that the reception the Syrian Jews got in the US from those of us who were already here was so aloof–they didn’t speak Yiddish, they didn’t look the same, they did a few things differently for kashrut and prayers–that her community kept to themselves ever after.

I can believe it, unfortunately–the period right after World War II and the Holocaust was one of paranoia and circling the wagons for American Ashkenazim.

Eastern and Western Jews had similar discomfort with each other in postwar Europe. Reading between the lines a little in Claudia Roden’s and Colette Rossant’s memoirs, the two, who had just lost everything, thought their new Ashkenazi neighbors were cold and inhospitable and indifferent to their exile; the Ashkenazi neighbors and relatives, meanwhile, thought the wealthy young Egyptian arrivals were horribly spoiled and indifferent to the European disaster they had just missed. Altogether, the Ashkenazi, Sephardi, and Mizrahi communities were in closer touch before World War I than they were after the 1940s.

I can only hope that now, 60 or 70 years on, we have more in common and more regard for each other, no matter where we came from. Israel’s great mix of cultures has been a good influence, even though it originated in hardship, and perhaps today we are in better shape to appreciate what we have in common than we have been for nearly a century.

When I look through Dweck’s family’s photos, I see so many people who look astonishingly like several members of my family–my dad and my sister especially. The dignified lady presiding at the seder table on the front cover is a shockingly exact adult version of a girl I knew from my synagogue’s youth group–it’s the sturdy mouth and chin and the set of the eyes, certainly, but also the irrepressibly thick and curly hair (the 1920s formal chignon has it all over my friend’s 1970s braids, which took her hours to corral her hair into). The formal photographs of families in the 1920s, all the daughters dressed beautifully but in the same fabric the mother is wearing, sailor suits on the boys, stern dignified expressions all–I’m pretty sure each of my grandmothers had at least one of those in her collection. The 1930s-era engagement portrait with pearls and bobbed hair–so modern! Pin it up next to the one of my dad’s parents, who married in 1939 and looked so incredibly naive and young then. The family gatherings at Pesach, grandma presiding over the white lace tablecloth and all the seated cousins glancing behind them at the camera from over their shoulders–there’s probably one or two with my mother as a toddler on someone’s lap in Brooklyn and another of her as a teen, whipping her glasses off and blinking myopically for the photo. It could be any of our families. It could have been us in Syria and Egypt and Turkey, it could have been them in the Ukraine or Germany or Poland. We none of us have entirely safe histories, and none of us are entirely separate.

In any case, Dweck’s book is important to me not only for capturing her community’s traditions, tastes and history but for reaching out to the rest of us and giving us a chance to share it, compare it with our own, and reconsider what it means to be part of the Jewish world now.

So–and this is not to trivialize but to explain, since we sometimes live and remember through food, especially at the holidays–it was a great time to try out a challenging dish (challenging for me, anyway) from her book and serve it last night to my family for Erev Rosh Hashanah. I cook from scratch, I cook a lot, but I’ve never really done  the legendary great-aunts-at-Pesach kind of slow cooking where everyone groans in pleasure and declares “nobody does it like this anymore” when they taste it. I’ve only once cooked a whole turkey, and I’ve rarely tried anything else that took more than an hour and a half to cook. It’s a transformative experience, one that teaches me a lot about my great-aunts and great-grandmothers, both in the shtetls with the wood-fueled pripitschoks and communal ovens, and here in America with modern kitchens and big lace-covered tables. Trying this long-cooked dish gave me the chance to experience both my family’s past celebrations and Dweck’s at the same time.

To my very great pleasure, her recipe worked the way it was supposed to on the first try and tasted like the effort was worth it, even though her instructions are pretty simple and brief. That’s a huge achievement.

So–if you’re ready for this, keep reading–otherwise, glance at the pictures and skip to the bottom…

The “Stuffed Eggplants with Quince” Experience

First of all, let me just say that I LOVE my local Armenian corner grocers for a lot of reasons, but the fact that they have all the ingredients for Dweck’s dishes (other than kosher meat, that is) is a big, big plus.

I would have tried microwaving–and I still will–instead of a 2-hour braise, but I wasn’t sure how it was supposed to taste, whether microwaving would cook the raw rice in the filling well enough, and how the sauce was supposed to interact with the stuffing and the eggplants. I knew from a previous hard-luck experience that quinces don’t do especially well (or even well at all) in the microwave and really need long stewing under conventional heat to get tender and turn bronzy pink and sweet. So all in all, I decided following the directions in Aromas of Aleppo might be the wiser course for a first try. Even though, from my usual 15-minutes-tops perspective on conventional-heat cooking, Poopa Dweck’s method is glacially, almost outrageously, slow.

Basically, you core the baby eggplants, stuff them with hashu (beef-and-rice filling, rice and tomatoes, or in my case lentils-and-rice), and layer them in a saucepan with quince slices. Then you dilute some tamarind concentrate and add a bit of sugar and salt, pour the sauce over the pan and heat for 10 minutes on the stove until the eggplants start to sweat, add water to come about 3/4 of the way up , simmer half an hour to reduce the liquid and cook the rice in the filling, then transfer to the oven to braise covered for about 40 minutes and then uncovered for another 30. It’s a lot like making brisket, actually.

Dweck gives two allspice-laden recipes for the filling, one for ground beef with rice, the other a rice-and-tomato filling that’s close to what I use for dolmas. I opted to follow the ground beef recipe but substitute an equal weight of cooked green lentils for the meat and add a little garlic. It would work, I was pretty sure, and in fact it turned out to be the best, most delicious part of this recipe–which, skipping to the punchline, was pretty terrific and worthwhile, even for the work involved. (I don’t want you thinking it’s too much trouble to try even once.)

Meatless Hashu with Green Lentils

  • 1 lb. cooked brown/green ordinary supermarket lentils or about 2.5 cups–wash, sort, and microwave a pound of dry lentils 7 minutes on HIGH in a covered microwaveable container with enough water to cover them by an inch or so. Let sit 15-20 minutes after cooking to absorb as much water as possible, then microwave again for 5-7 minutes until the lentils are cooked through and tender but not too mushy. Drain before weighing or measuring out.
  • 1/3 c. short grain rice (Calrose, etc.) if you’ve got it, or other decent raw rice–rinse, soak 30 minutes in a bowl of water (it’ll turn opaque white), and drain
  • 2-3 T olive or other vegetable oil
  • 1 t. allspice (preferably fresh-ground, about 7-10 allspice berries)
  • 1 t. cinnamon
  • pinch of ground fennel, 1/2 t. ground coriander seed, 1/4 t. fresh-ground black pepper (these are my additions to Dweck’s basic recipe)
  • 1/2-3/4 t. salt (taste–this is non-meat and there will also be a little salt in the sauce, so don’t go overboard)
  • 2 cloves garlic–mashed or grated–my other addition to the recipe
  • 1 onion, diced fine

Fry onion and spices together in a tablespoon of oil until the onion begins to brown. (Frying first was another change of mine–I thought the lentils might need a little extra richness of flavor because they weren’t meat.) Pulse all the ingredients together a few times with the rest of the oil in a food processor until the lentils form a paste. The rice grains will still be visible.

Can I please say it–this lentil filling tasted and smelled absolutely wonderful, even though of course the rice was still raw and hard. I wasn’t sure what the allspice was going to be like–but it definitely has a savory edge even though we’re mostly used to thinking of it as a sweet baking spice. It’s just great with the onion and garlic, and gives the earthy lentils extra depth and complexity. I’m gonna use it for everything from now on. Everything. Ok, maybe not birthday cake. But everything else.

The eggplants

baby eggplants

A dozen “baby” eggplants, about 2-3 inches long, with the caps cut off and the pulp hollowed out carefully with a sharp paring knife or a corer/peeler implement if you have one (I didn’t). If you’re using a knife, be careful how you hold the eggplant in your other hand and keep your movements small and controlled so you don’t stab yourself in the palm.

baby eggplants after coring them

Save the pulp and microwave it a couple of minutes on a plate–you can mix it into the hashu before stuffing the shells if you want. Then stuff the shells as best you can–I think it’s okay to stuff the paste in fairly well, but Dweck says do it loosely, especially if you’re using a more-rice kind of filling, so it doesn’t ooze out and make a mess when the cooking rice swells.

The quinces

the quinces

I lucked out–this is the second time I’ve tried to quarter, core and peel a quince, and the ones I bought this week were actually not rock-hard but beginning to ripen. I sliced two of them up in 1/2 inch wedges rather than sixths as the recipe calls for, thinking they’d look better and might cook more thoroughly.

Stuffed eggplants and quince slices simmer on the stovetop under a heavy plate

Stuffed eggplants and quince slices simmer on the stovetop under a heavy plate.

Arrange about half the quince wedges on the bottom of a big wide-bottomed saucepan, preferably one that can go straight from stovetop to oven, but don’t agonize if you don’t have one. Arrange the stuffed eggplants on top of the quince layer. Intersperse the rest of the quince between the eggplants in a nice pattern.

The tamarind braising sauce–I cut this in half to match the number of eggplants I was using. It was still strong enough to taste in the final product.

For a dozen eggplants, about 1.5-2 tablespoons of tamarind concentrate mixed with a tablespoon of sugar, a squeeze of lemon, a bit less than 1/2 t. salt (I think I did closer to 1/4 t.), and 1/2 cup of water.

Pour the tamarind braising sauce over the eggplants and quinces, put a heavy saucer or plate on to weight the eggplants down, and simmer on medium low about 10 minutes covered, until the eggplants start to give up moisture. Then pour enough water to come 3/4 of the way up the sides of the eggplants, turn up the heat to start boiling, turn it back down uncovered to simmer 30 minutes or until the liquid is down to about 1/4 of its volume. This didn’t happen for me even after 30 minutes, but I didn’t worry too much, because it was thickened.

Either put the saucepan directly in a 350 degree oven with a lid on for 40 minutes and without the lid for another 30 (or until your challah is also done, in my disorganized case) OR (as I did) transfer the eggplants and quinces to a casserole dish, pour a reasonable amount of sauce over it and cover with foil. Put it on a baking tray to catch spills or else line the lower rack of the oven with foil (carefully) and set the casserole on it to braise and cook the rice through. When you take the foil off to let the sauce cook down, you may want to baste the eggplants every once in a while.

The Leftover Stuffing Needs Using Up

The 12 eggplants make half the amount Dweck calls for but will fill a small casserole like a deep-dish pie plate with enough to serve 4 or so as a side dish (if it were meat, it could be the main dish). Because her recipe calls for two pounds of beef hashu and I had made mine with only one pound of cooked lentils, I was expecting that to cover the dozen eggplants. But I had a lot of stuffing left over, almost half in fact. So I ended up doing a bonus recipe–Mehshi Basal or stuffed onions–and cooking it in the same casserole.

Onion layers for stuffing

Here’s where I decided it was ok to go my own way and microwave–I had one yellow onion in the house, and didn’t want to add to the heat by boiling it 20 minutes on the stove. I sliced off both ends, peeled it, and made a vertical cut from the outside in just to the center, and dropped the onion in a bowl of water to cover. I put a saucer on the bowl and microwaved 5 minutes–it was done and ready to peel into layers with a couple of spoons.

separating the onion layers after microwaving in water

Once I got the onion layers and let them cool a few seconds, I rolled a good tablespoonful of stuffing into each one. You have to roll it in pretty tight so it’ll hold together. Then what? I stuck them on top of the casserole and spooned some sauce directly over them and let them braise in the oven.

Stuffed eggplants and quinces with bonus stuffed onion rolls, ready for the oven

What I really should have done was let them cook on the stovetop much the way I had the eggplants and quince, but they were a late addition. When the casserole came out 2 hours later, I’d basted them several times and the tops looked pretty, but the rice in the onions was still hard and crunchy. So I lifted them off gently, set them in a soup bowl with a quarter inch of water in the bottom, put on a saucer for a lid and microwaved them two minutes to try and steam them. It worked! and it didn’t ruin the roasted look of the onions! And I’d rolled them securely enough that they held together! Beauty!

…I’m pretty sure my great-aunts didn’t crow that triumphantly in their kitchens. They probably didn’t have to, because they already knew what they were doing. That’s okay.

I let everything cool while the challah was finishing up and then made a standard 15-minute pan-grilled-salmon-with-microwave-assist kind of dinner. Because that’s about as much time as I had left…

And everything tasted pretty good. The eggplants were tender, with just a hint of bitter earthiness, and they were a good contrast to the quinces, which never got the rich orangy-red in Dweck’s photograph but were tangy and sweet. The tamarind sauce was tart but mellower than I expected and held the flavors together. Dweck is right–it’s an intriguing combination and none of the elements get lost in the shuffle.

But the microwave-rescued onion rolls were probably the best–certainly according to my daughter, and I actually agree. For whatever reason, once they were steamed through, they allowed the filling’s allspice and cinnamon richness to shine better than the eggplants did.  It could be that the eggplants need to be fried before filling them. It could be that the baby ones turn a little bitter after stewing, even though a sliver of one of the raw ones was mild. I’m not sure what would enhance them best but it’s worth tweaking a little. And making more of the onion rolls–they were delicious and very easy.

Microwave tricks to try for next time

Now that I’ve done this once the long way, I think I could definitely cut the time by microwaving most of the elements and saving the oven work for maybe the last 20 minutes. That way I could do this again without sweating so hard.

Don’t get me wrong–if you’re using raw meat in the stuffing, it really will benefit from a long braise and Dweck’s method probably is best, and you just save this dish for a winter’s day when you want the oven to heat up the house. But for me, using precooked lentils in the stuffing means that the only thing that really needs time is the rice. You could either omit it altogether, cook it through before adding it to the stuffing (actually, a pretty good solution; just pulse the lentils to a paste with the onion and spices before stirring in the cooked rice). Or microwave-steam the filled vegetables as I did the onion rolls.

To get the fully microwaved dish to look nice and roasted, I’d bake the whole thing uncovered with just the half-cup of tamarind glaze in a 350-400 degree oven for maybe 20 minutes, or else pan-glaze the vegetables in the tamarind sauce in a big frying pan without extra liquid. In about 10-20 minutes, everything would be ready to serve… well, except the quinces–which I haven’t yet solved. Let me think here.

Quinces don’t cook well in the microwave… So maybe stew them separately on the stovetop in a little water, maybe with tamarind sauce, and then add them once they’re cooked? Worth a try.

The other quicker possibility would be to substitute cored, peeled Granny Smith apple wedges for the quinces. The taste is actually pretty similar once they’re cooked (I may be missing some of the finesse; my LA pollution-crippled sense of smell may not be catching everything here). Apple slices might fall apart after 2 hours of oven stewing, but Granny Smiths are pretty sturdy, and they do cook nicely in the microwave in about a minute, unlike quinces. So if you add them last to the casserole, after the eggplants and onions have had a few minutes to steam, they’d probably be close to right in the microwave version.

The last thing to check is the eggplants themselves, since I thought they kind of muted the flavor of the filling. What to do? Salt the shells 30 minutes and rinse? Not a fan, but it might work. Microwave them until limp? Might be hard to stuff them, but on the other hand microwaving the solid ones would make coring them a lot easier afterward. Oy. Maybe rub the eggplant shells inside with a paste of oil, garlic, and a little curry powder or more allspice and cinnamon and then nuke them a few minutes before stuffing them? Panfry the stuffed eggplants before  or after microwave steaming to get more of a roasted flavor? Hmm.

I’ll just have to try this again and find out. Maybe next week, when things cool down a little.

B’te’avon (bon appétit) and L’Shanah Tova u’Metukah–may you have a good and sweet New Year!

2 Responses

  1. It sounds like you had a happy, triumphant New Year. Mazel tov!

    I remember reading somewhere, during WWII, in North Africa, that Jewish GI’s were astounded at trying to talk to people who looked and acted just like them, but didn’t understand a word of Yiddish!

    Some years for my birthday, I asked for a spice cake. Allspice might work in that. I always end up putting extra cinnamon on my p’stilla, so I know these spices are great with meat or meat-like things.

    And now I’m hungry. Darnit, Debbie!

    • Thank you! (or as our rabbi is saying these days, “One down, three to go…do you think they’d notice if we just disappeared for November?”)

      One of my grandfathers was in the merchant marine and they had stops in Italy and Morocco–I don’t think he actually tried Yiddish on anyone from Tangier (he was a savvy enough kid from the Bronx)–but maybe he used that Bronx upbringing to help communicate in Italy. My grandmother, who also grew up in the neighborhood, was certainly able to shock my dad as a kid of eight by telling him off in fluent and rather pungent Sicilian (in words he thought only he and his friends on the block knew!) It was a great story when I was eight and learned A) that my grandma Bea was feistier than she looked and B) that I had a great new illicit foreign expression to practice on my sister the next time we fought. Which of course was going to be soon. Though I love her now.

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