An eggplant or aubergine 'little plates' number on the menu at Soju Girl in the city took my fancy when dining with lovely friends recently. The dish featured a row of baby Japanese eggplants stuffed with spiced pork mince, sesame and pepitas, or pumpkin seeds. They were such tasty little morsels that I knew on first bite that I would like to recreate them at home.
My palate enjoyed the combination of spices with a sweet, sour and salty finish. 'There's another ingredient here that I can't quite put my finger on, ' I said to my knowledgable food colleagues, Sue Dodd and Annette Forrest. 'It's tamarind,' Sue replied immediately. Yes, of course, that was it!
Now, Soju Girl is all about modern Asian fusion food, but this dish struck me as being a little more exotic, Persian perhaps. So, at home I poured through a pile of my favourite Persian/Middle Eastern/Moroccan cookery books, including Tamarind and Saffron and Arabesque, both by Claudia Roden, as well as New Food of Life by Najmieh Batmanglij (a delicious big book subtitled 'Ancient Persian and Modern Iranian Cooking and Ceremonies), and also Jerusalem by Yotam Ottolenghi. The two former titles featured numerous aubergine or eggplant dishes, but it was Mr Ottolenghi's receipt for stuffed aubergine with lamb and pine nuts that seemed to best match the flavours that were still so fresh in my mind. Of course I could have experimented with my own recipe, but as it was I was keen to road test another recipe from Jerusalem, it is such a splendid book!
For tasty little bites, shop for the smallest aubergines you can find. Those labelled as Japanese or Lebanese tend to be quite tiny. The ones at the restaurant were not much bigger than a man's thumb, whereas those pictured above are about twice the size, however they were the smallest I could find at the time of purchase. They are beautiful, nonetheless, don't you think?!
Pick some sprigs of fresh flat leaf parsley from the garden, rinse it and pat it dry with paper towelling, then chop.
Store pine nuts in a sealed container in the freezer so that they don't quickly turn rancid. They will keep for 3-4 months.
My take on the recipe...
AUBERGINES STUFFED WITH SPICED MINCE & PINE NUTS
4 small to medium sized aubergines/eggplants, sliced in half lengthways
1/2 cup olive oil
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 tablespoon sweet paprika
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
1 large onion, finely chopped
500g pork and veal mince (or lamb mince)*
1 heaped tablespoon pine nuts
handful of flat leaf parsley, chopped
2 tablespoons tomato puree
1 scant tablespoon caster sugar
juice of half a lemon
1 teaspoon tamarind paste
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Preheat oven to 200 degrees C. Line a baking tray with baking paper. Place the aubergines, skin side down on the tin and brush liberally with oil, then season with salt and pepper. Bake for 15-20 minutes until golden brown. Remove the tray from the oven, set aside and allow the aubergines to cool. Leave the oven on but lower the temperature to 175 degrees C.
Combine the spices in a bowl and mix to blend. Meanwhile, heat the remaining oil in a heavy based pan, fry the onions until they soften, then stir in half of the spice mix and cook over a low heat for 2-3 minutes, then add the mince and cook until it begins to brown. Now stir in the pine nuts, tomato puree, parsley, one teaspoon of the caster sugar and a little salt and pepper. Mix together the rest of the spice mix in the bowl with the water, lemon juice, tamarind paste, remaining caster sugar and (if you like) a little more salt. Mix well, until smooth.
Gently transfer the roasted aubergines to a small cast iron/pyrex/enamel baking pan, placing them skin side down. Pour the spice/tamarind/water mixture into the bottom of this baking pan around the aubergines. Then spoon the mince mixture evenly over the top. Cover the pan with aluminium foil and return to the oven for 30-45 minutes until the sauce is thick and syrupy and the aubergines are soft. Mr Ottolenghi recommends basting the aubergines twice during cooking with the sauce and add a little more water if it dries out.
This dish should be served warm or at room temperature, rather than hot. Actually, if you refrigerate it overnight, the flavours will be more intense and far more delicious the following day. That said, I must tell you that I also enjoyed eating it cold. Serves two as meal, four as a starter, dependent on the size of the aubergines.
The original recipe called for lamb mince, which I think would work beautifully, but I do love a lean pork and veal mince too.
The process in pictures...
'Serve warm, not hot, or at room temperature,' says Mr Ottolenghi...
Tell me, after dining out, do you like to recreate dishes at home? What has been your favourite of these experiments? And are you a fan of Claudia Roden and Yotam Ottolenghi?
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I use Australian standard measuring cups and spoons in my recipes.