Eggplants stuffed with herbs and rice

Here in the Levant we like to stuff things. It’s a habit picked up by all the places that used to be part of the Ottoman empire and its neighbors. Because rice is never so good as when it’s cooked packed inside a vegetable, and picks up its flavors and aroma during cooking.

Since stuffing isn’t limited only to peppers, which are born hollow and ready to be stuffed, there are special tools to help with the job. Previously I used a paring knife, but inspired by Sarah and Miriam’s posts on Nazareth, I picked up a special hollowing tool, for seven shekels (Photo after the jump). I got it from a little store on Jaffa’s Jerusalem boulevard, where the shopkeeper showed me an Egyptian pound someone had passed off as 10-shekel coin earlier that day — both have a bronze disc surrounded by a silver border, except the pound has a picture of a pharaoh and is worth, um, about 1/20th of a 10-shekel coin.

Anyway, it’s basically a curved blade, with one serrated edge. It removes vegetable flesh a tube at a time, and lets me scrape out the inside. While it’s not an essential, it does make it easier to hollow larger vegetables and get thinner walls. (This zucchini corer on Amazon is pretty similar.)

It makes mini eggplants a lot easier to core, for one. These are one of the varieties considered indigenous to the region. They’re often prepared stuffed.

I call it “Still Life with Hollowed Eggplants.”

Eitan found the hollowed eggplants highly amusing, and struck this pose and waited until I turned around and noticed.

Clearly, they don’t get hollowed out instantaneously. It took me about 15 minutes to hollow 10 eggplants. But the payoff is that there’s something festive about labor-intensive food.

Fresh herbs are an excellent complement to the eggplant (and pretty much everything else), and they have a double presence in this dish — both cooked in the rice, and fresh in the accompanying sauce.

The sauce (and therefore the dish) is either dairy or vegan/parve, depending whether you make the sauce with yogurt or tehina.

A note about fresh herbs: They tend to be sold in large bunches, and I never manage to go through an entire package of, say, dill. So I rinse and dry half the bunch, chop it and loosely pack it into a container to freeze. It’s easy to scoop out spoonfuls for cooked dishes. It’s not as good as fresh, but it’s better than buying a whole bunch to use a tablespoon or two, and way better than letting the rest go to waste.

For the stuffed eggplants:
10-12 mini eggplants (about 1 kilo/2.2 pounds)
1 cup rice
3-4 garlic cloves
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons cilantro
2 tablespoons parsley
2 tablespoons chives
2 tablespoons dill
1.5 teaspoons salt
pinch (±1/8 teaspoon) cinnamon, nutmeg, cumin and black pepper
hot water

For the sauce:
olive oil for frying
1 cup yogurt (vegan/parve alternative: tehina)
1+ cup assorted chopped herbs (I used 1 cup parsley, 1/4 cup cilantro and 1/4 cup chives)
salt to taste (or none at all)

Heat the oven to the maximum temperature (240 degrees Celsius/450 Fahrenheit) either before or after you hollow the eggplants, which will take about 15 minutes.

Hollow out the eggplants: Slice off the tops, and carve the flesh out of the eggplants, leaving at least 1/2 centimeter (1/4 inch) of wall intact. You can hollow the eggplant with a small knife, a pointy vegetable peeler or a curved blade made for the purpose. Set aside the flesh; it will go into the sauce.

Chop the herbs for the stuffing, and mix them with the rice, salt, spices and olive oil.

Arrange the eggplants in a baking dish, hollow end facing up. Spoon the filling into the hollowed eggplants.

Pour hot water into each eggplant, up to the top. Pour another inch/2 centimeters of hot water into the bottom of the dish. Cover and put into the oven to bake.

The eggplants are done once they are soft, and the rice looks fluffy and pokes out of the openings. This should take 45 min-1 hour.

Meanwhile, prepare the sauce: Put the eggplant flesh into a frying pan with some olive oil, and fry. Once it starts to stick, pour some water into the pan and cover. Cook until the eggplant flesh is soft enough to fall apart. My water boiled off and the eggplant got brown and crusty on the bottom of the pan, so I added water to deglaze it.

Mix 1/2 cup cooked eggplant with 1 cup yogurt (or tehina) and chopped herbs to taste (any mix of the herbs that went into the stuffing — I used 1/4 cup each cilantro and chives, and about 1 cup parsley). You can add salt if you want, but I didn’t find it necessary.

Serve the sauce alongside the eggplants.

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