Tony is all about food. His ongoing food events and special projects have been featured in the press. To learn more, you can view his gallery, read his blog, or simply contact him directly.

Archive for the ‘eggplant’ Tag


Cab rides through Aleppo

I used to love exploring Aleppo by cab. Occasionally I’ll catch myself daydreaming about these simple, ordinary memories: leaning forward from the sidewalk of a bustling street; hailing a cab in the ancient city. The experience made me feel like a local, like a halabi.

As I waited for a cab to pull over, I would practice how to pronounce the name of the street or destination where I wanted to go. “A’al jama’a, low samahet,” I repeated softly, placing extra emphasis on the a’a sound — to the university, please. The a’a sound in Arabic, produced by the letter aeyn (ع), is the most difficult for me, as a non-native speaker, to pronounce. The sound is that of a deep “a” that is starts at back of your throat. Linguists refer to this as an epiglottal sound.

I miss these small yellow cabs (even with all their honking)
cabs in Aleppo

In Aleppo, if you’re male, you’re expected to ride in the passenger seat alongside the driver. This makes the experience more casual — it encourages conversation. It also ensures there is never a dull or quiet ride through the city.

Once I sat in the passenger seat, a few utterances of my soft-spoken Arabic were usually enough to cause intrigue. The Aleppan dialect is known for its rather sharp and assertive tone. When the driver would ask me where I’m from, I usually turned the question back to him, asking where he thought I was from. This way my way of breaking the ice. It was also how I informally kept track of my progress in Arabic. When I arrived to Syria, I started out as an ajnabi, a foreigner. Towards the end of my Fulbright some cab drivers actually thought I was an Armenian from Aleppo. I was elated the first time I heard that.

After a few guesses, I would clarify that I was an American studying food culture in Syria. Mentioning food in Aleppo is an ice breaker in its own right. Aleppans, as you may gather from my blog, are famous for their food. Once food entered the conversation, cultural barriers suddenly dissipated. Shoulders relaxed and polite smiles felt more sincere. If I was welcomed before, the driver would make sure to welcome me again: Ya ahla w sahla, ya meet el salameh.

Cab rides provided great opportunities for cultural exchange. On many occasions I was the first American the driver had ever met. Cabs were also a great place for me to interact with Syrians from all walks of life. I met professionals looking for a second source of income, religious men, young adults who had run-ins with the law (well, just one), business men, Kurds who played lovely Kurdish music, food enthusiasts, and many others. One cab driver, I will never forget him, entertained me with his Arabic-English riddles. “Cat in light” he exclaimed — “cat in light!!” I’m hardly good at riddles in English, let alone riddles between two languages. After a few seconds, he blurted out, ou’t fil duow (قط في الضوء), and then repeated more fluently, ou’tfi el douw (أطفي الضوء). “Get it“, he asked, cackling. You see, the Arabic translation for “cat in light,” if pronounced quickly, will sound like someone is saying, “turn off the light.” I laughed with him. He then presented me with another riddle, which I will leave for my Arabic-English readers to guess: “small donkey, my money.” If you get it, leave your answer in the comments!

One thing I learned about Syrian cuisine is that it is resourceful. Recipes were never exact; more like simple instructions that vary between neighborhoods, and even families. A series of handfuls and pinches that, when executed properly, lead to extraordinary meals. One of the dishes that exemplifies this culinary ingenuity is called maldoum (ملضوم), an incredibly delicious layered meat and eggplant dish. The classic way to prepare this dish is over a grill, where you alternate meat patties and eggplant slices on a skewer. When the dish is prepared over the grill, it is called, kabob banjan (كباب باذنجان). But if you don’t have access to a grill, you can prepare kabob banjan in the oven, and call it maldoum.

Either way you prepare it, the dish is incredibly simple and only takes a few basic ingredients: eggplants, ground meat, tomatoes, tomato puree, salt, allspice, and paprika.

mise en place
mise en place

The eggplants should be sliced fairly thick, about an inch wide, because they will release a lot of water while they cook in the oven.

thick slices
thick slices

Traditionally, the eggplant slices are pan-fried and then layered into the casserole, but I think it tastes better when the eggplants are roasted in the oven. For one, it’s healthier, but you also won’t have to stand over the stove frying slices of eggplant individually.

Before I roast the eggplants, I sprinkle them with a bit of salt to help break them down and remove some of the liquid stored inside.

sprinkle with salt
sprinkle with salt

Then I cover the eggplants with paper towels and place a baking sheet on top. I weigh the baking sheet down with anything heavy to help the eggplants drain more quickly. I used my cast-iron wok, but anything heavy, like cans or even a brick, will do.

drain the eggplants
drain the eggplants

The meat is important. You can use lamb or beef, but make sure it is freshly ground and seasoned properly. I used beef. You might even try ground chicken or turkey for healthier alternatives. Remember, these are merely guidelines.

If you’re using beef, I suggest using 90/10 ground beef (10% fat). The grilled version calls for 85/15 ground beef (15%), but that’s because a lot of the fat drains into the grill.

simply seasoned: salt, allspice, paprika
simply seasoned: salt, allspice, paprika

Maldoum is traditionally prepared in a large round metal pan, similar to cake pans, but slightly shorter. I didn’t have one of those, so I used an oven-proof rectangular casserole dish. I also sliced the eggplants in half so that they can fit nicely in the casserole dish I had. Then I formed the meat patties and sliced the tomatoes to roughly the same size.

alternate: eggplant, meat, tomato
alternate: eggplant, meat, tomato

Top the casserole with your favorite canned tomato puree and bake in the oven for about an hour. The tomato puree not only compliments the flavor of the fresh tomatoes in the casserole, but also protects the meat from drying out in the oven.

maldoum (ملضوم)
maldoum (ملضوم)

Bonne appétit,صحة و هنا

Maldoum

yields 6 servings

Components

  • 1.5 lbs 90% ground beef or lamb
  • 3 medium eggplants
  • 2 large tomatoes
  • 1/2 cup tomato puree
  • 1 1/2 tsp salt, to taste
  • 1 1/2 allspice, to taste
  • 1 tsp paprika, to taste

Putting them all together

  1. Rinse and dry the eggplants.
  2. Remove the tip of the eggplants, then slice into thick, even slices (approximately 1 inch thick).
  3. Season the eggplant with salt on both sides, cover with a layer of paper towels, and place a baking sheet with weights on top to drain some of the water from the eggplants. This will take about 15-20 minutes.
  4. Roast eggplants in a 425 degree oven for 20-25 minutes until tender, but not soft.
  5. Slice the eggplants in half if they are very large. Slice the tomatoes into roughly the same size as the eggplant slices.
  6. Season the ground beef with salt, allspice (freshly ground, if possible), and paprika.
  7. Divide the meat into even patties, approximately the same size as the eggplant slices.
  8. Alternate between eggplant, meat patties, and tomatoes in the casserole dish.
  9. Pour the tomato puree evenly across the top of the casserole and bake in a 425 degree oven for an hour.
  10. Serve with rice or pita bread and enjoy.

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My Fulbright to Syria served with Eggplant Kababs

Today I want to share with you the beginning of a new stage in my life.

It started last year when I decided to apply for a Fulbright research scholarship. My proposal: to conduct an anthropological study of Syrian cuisine; specifically, lunch. My perspective is slightly biased since both sides of my family are originally Syrian, but I believe Syrian food is among the best in the region. This is particularly true in Aleppo — Syria’s second largest city and headquarters for the Syrian Academy of Gastronomy.

The title of my proposal was “Between Us, Bread and Salt.” This is a literal translation of an old Arabic proverb, بيناتنا خبز و ملح (baynaatna khobz w milah). I like what this proverb stands for and thought it made sense in the context of my research. Food brings people together. I chose to focus on lunch because it’s usually the biggest and most important meal of the day in Syria and most Mediterranean countries. Lunch is when friends and family get together to eat, laugh, and share everyday stories. I proposed to study lunch from three different perspectives: restaurant meals, home cooked meals, and street foods.

Now, fast forward about ten months. Ten very long months. In my mailbox one afternoon, I found a yellow, letter-sized envelope from the Institute of International Education. I knew what was inside. I immediately grabbed the phone to call my grandmother. I knew that regardless of the outcome, my sito would know the right things to say; she always does. I called her house and let her know I had the envelope in my hands. I was both nervous and eager; this was the moment I had been waiting for. I carefully ripped the corner of the envelope and slid my index finger along the seal, making sure not to tear the letter. That’s when I took a deep breath and closed my eyes. I remember hearing my grandmother whisper a short prayer under her breath. I pinched the paper, and slowly pulled it out from the envelope. With my eyes barely open, I squinted and caught a glimpse of the phrase, “I am pleased to congratulate you.”

Fulbright Letter of Acceptance
Fulbright Letter of Acceptance

Even as I write this post today, it hasn’t sunken in yet. In a little over four weeks I need to be packed and ready to move to Syria for nine months to study food. I will be working with renowned Syrian food expert, Samir Tahhan (no relation) as well as members from the Syrian Academy of Gastronomy. I’m humbled. I owe a huge part of this amazing feeling to you, all the readers, who have encouraged me to continue blogging and pursue my dreams. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

I will try and write a couple more posts with more details before I start my Fulbright, but for now, I need to tell you about this pretty fantastic kabab recipe before summer slips away. It’s an Aleppan specialty. It’s called kabab banjan, or eggplant kababs.

mise en place
mise en place

I love recipes like this because they cannot get any simpler. Only three main ingredients. Before summer is over please promise me you’ll try this recipe, only because I promise you will fall in love with it (if you like eggplants, that is).

thick slices
thick eggplan slices

You’ll want thick slices of eggplant because of all the water they’ll lose. This will help the eggplant maintain their shape.

season your meat
season the meat
fire up your grill
grilling outdoors
beautiful char
charred eggplant

This is precisely the reason you want to be doing this outside, over an open flame. You just can’t develop a crust like this on a skillet. You can get a sear, sure, but the best flavor comes from the scorching flames directly underneath the kababs. That’s how the magic happens. You’ll start to hear a soft crackling sound while fat from the meat melts into the fire — that’s a good thing. The juices from the meat will also start to seep into the eggplants and your entire grilling area will start to smell like a huge plate of baba ganoush. It’s a wonderful experience.

the secret
add water to kabab

Aha! The secret. This dish, like most good dishes, comes with a secret. The original idea to make this dish came from a reader who wrote me an email asking why her recipe for kabab banjan does not have a pronounced eggplant flavor. I consulted with my grandmother, of course, and wrote back. After you’ve developed a good crust on the eggplant and meat skewers, you want to place the kababs in an oven-safe receptacle, pour a thin layer of water, cover with aluminum foil, and bake at 350 degrees for 20-30 minutes. This gives time for the eggplant to finish cooking all the way through, and at the same time allows the meat to soak up more of the roasted eggplant flavor. This is also the perfect time to prepare a side of rice and set the table.

kabab banjan (كباب بنجان)
eggplant kabab

Enjoy what’s left of the summer — صحة و هنا (saha w hana) bon appetit!

Kabab Banjan

yields 6 servings

Components

  • 1/2 kg 80-85% ground beef or lamb
  • 4 medium eggplants
  • salt, to taste
  • allspice, to taste
  • 8-10 skewers, preferably metal
  • roma tomatoes
  • pita bread

Putting them all together

  1. If you’re using wooden skewers, start by soaking them in water as directed by package.
  2. Rinse and dry the eggplants.
  3. Remove the tip of the eggplants, then slice into thick, even slices (approx 1.5in. thick).
  4. Season the eggplant with salt and a drizzle of olive oil.
  5. Season the ground beef with salt and allspice (freshly ground, if possible).
  6. Divide the meat into even patties, approximately the same diameter as the slices of eggplant.
  7. Alternate between eggplant and meat patties on the skewers. If there is any leftover meat or eggplant, you can skewer it by itself.
  8. Skewer whole roma tomatoes.
  9. Cook the eggplant-kabab skewers over a hot grill until you get an even char on all sides.
  10. Roast all the tomato skewers until they are evenly charred as well.
  11. In a large oven-proof container, pile all the eggplant-kababs and top with the roasted tomatoes. Add between a 1/4 and 1/3 cup of water to the pan — you want to make sure there is a thin layer of water covering the bottom of the pan.
  12. Cover loosely with aluminum foil and bake in a 350 degree oven for 20-30 minutes.
  13. Serve with rice or pita bread and enjoy.

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I want to dedicate this post to everyone who helped and guided me throughout the Fulbright application process. I could not have received this prestigious award without your generous support. Thank you:
Dr. Stefan Senders, Fulbright advisor, for your inspiration and for being a wonderful mentor. Mrs. Elizabeth Edmondson, coordinator of the Fulbright program at Cornell University, for your support, kindness, and delicious recipe for Jamaican Cock Soup. Dr. Jane Fajans, for exposing me to the field of food anthropology and advising me on my research. Dean Maria Davidis, for always encouraging me as an undergraduate and being there to talk food. Dr. June Nasrallah, faculty advisor for the Lebanese Club at Cornell, for supporting my culinary endeavors. Dr. Feryal Hijazi, professor of Arabic at Harvard University, for helping me improve my Arabic. I want to thank the Syrian Academy of Gastronomy for setting me up with a terrific mentor, Mr. Samir Tahhan, and offering me the resources to explore the best of Syrian cuisine. I also want to thank everyone at the Institute of International Education for making the Fulbright possible.
Thank you!

Delicious, Any Way You Roast It

Middle Eastern spreads are plentiful, but very few have been able to jump the cultural divide into restaurants and homes in the States. In the Middle East, families, neighbors and even strangers gather around these homemade delicacies to talk for hours about absolutely anything.

Hummus is by far the most recognized Middle Eastern spread, but you don’t need to look far to find plenty of others that are just as tasty (or tastier!). Baba Ganoush is a traditional spread that uses charred eggplants to create a rich smoky pulp that is out-of-this-world delicious. For maximal fire-roasted goodness, roast the eggplants over an open flame. For those of us, however, who are only granted this luxury 2 weeks out of the year (if we’re lucky), we must turn to other alternatives. When it’s subzero outside I use my broiler or grill pan and find that both deliver a comprable fire-roasted flavor.

Baba ganoush literally translates into father who spoils (with an over-caring and positive connotation) in case you were wondering. This is a family recipe that was given to me by my grandmother who grew up in Aleppo, Syria (one of the greatest culinary centers of the Middle East). In this region of Syria pomegranates are abundant and bursting with flavor, so it isn’t surprising that a pomegranate version of this tasty spread evolved. Not only does the pomegranate add a more subtle citrus bite, but it also balances the bitterness of the seeds in the eggplant with its natural sweetness.

Baba Ganoush (بابا غنوج)

Baba Ganoush

Components

  • 2 medium sized eggplants
  • 2 tsp. extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 tbsp. tahini
  • 1 tsp. lemon juice
  • 2 tsp. pomegranate juice
  • 1 tsp. pomegranate molasses
  • 1 garlic clove
  • fresh pomegranate, for garnish
  • salt, to taste

Putting them all together

  1. With the tip of a paring knife, poke the eggplant all around.
  2. Cook the eggplants over an open fire (preferably), under the broiler or on a grill pan for 5-7 minutes on each side or until completely charred and soft on the inside.
  3. Place eggplants in a bowl and cover in plastic wrap for about 5 minutes (or until they cool down enough to work with).
  4. Peel the skin off eggplant and place back in the bowl. Add olive oil, lemon juice, pomegranate juice and molasses and mash with a fork.
  5. On a cutting board, mince the garlic clove with the salt in order to create a garlic paste. Then, mix into the eggplant puree.
  6. Cover in plastic wrap and refrigerate until ready to serve. Garnish with fresh pomegranate and extra virgin olive oil and serve alongside pita bread.

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