Olive Trees & Honey: Yemenite Eggplant Casserole

About a year ago, a store named Ollie’s Bargain Outlet opened up here in Roanoke (well, Salem, technically, but seriously, Salem is pretty much Roanoke, just sayin’) and everyone lost their minds with joy. Or a bunch of people did, at least. I, for one, wrote it off as a Big Lots knock-off and never gave it a second thought until one night when G & I were bored and decided to head over and make fun of it. Little did I know that I’d walk away with a stack of cookbooks & some awesome muffin pans. Never knock it till you shop it, right?

The cookbook section was chock full of Rachael Ray and Spam cookbooks (no really, the company, or someone, mass produced a cookbook), but hidden in the shelves were goodies like Marcus Samuelsson’s New American Table and Gil Marks’ Olive Trees and Honey. For $9 each. You know I bought them.

Olive Trees and Honey: A Treasury of Vegetarian Recipes from Jewish Communities Around the World won the James Beard Foundation award in 2005 and, quite frankly, is one of the most well-researched and written books on Jewish cuisine that I’ve ever seen. Recipes span the globe from Israel to India to Romania and everywhere in between and the book is organized into sections like “soups,” “savory pastries,” “legumes,” “dumplings and pasta,” and “sauces and seasonings.” Plenty of recipes are innately vegan, but many do feature dairy and eggs, so if you’re vegan, be aware of that.

The recipe in today’s post—Yemenite Eggplant Casserole—is the only one I’ve actually tried from the book, so this isn’t a review of the recipes as a whole, just more of a poetic waxing on one particular recipe.

Dishes I’m dying to try out in the near future include Moroccan Fiery Marinated Olives, Eastern European Sorrel Soup, Bukharan Turnovers (Uzbek samosas), Georgian Red Beans in Prune Sauce, and Syrian Torpedoes (Kibbe Nayeh). I don’t think I’ve actually seen a recipe in the book that turns me off. And the best part is the history of each dish that Gil includes. For example (and I’ll quote the section on the Yemenite Eggplant Casserole):

During one of my stints studying in Israel, the evening cook at my school was a Yemenite woman, who six days a week single-handedly whipped up a range of Middle Eastern vegetarian fare for dinner, showing a particular fondness for eggplant. One of her tastiest dishes was a relatively simple but flavorful eggplant casserole layered with a lightly spicy tomato sauce.

Unlike meat sauces, which require a long cooking time to meld the flavors, tomato sauce should be cooked just long enough to thicken it and mellow the acid in the tomato, but not too long to impair the fruity flavor. Good-tasting raw tomatoes produce good sauces, but canned tomatoes are preferable when fresh ones are out of season. If the sauce lacks verve, add a little mild wine vinegar, a few drops of hot sauce, or a pinch of red pepper flakes near the end of cooking. This dish is generally accompanied with flat bread.

Other dishes in the book have more concrete histories—roots in the Ottoman empire, foods that evolved out of prolonged periods of drought or war, pastry recipes handed down from mother to daughter. It’s a fascinating read and, for someone who adores a cookbook with pictures, it refreshingly lacks any and asks that instead you use your imagination to conjure the images of steaming bowls of rice, a pot of lentil stew simmering on the stove.

After cooking this eggplant casserole I wish, instead, that I’d decided to make this MoFo 30 days of Olive Trees & Honey. Using the last of the eggplant from the garden as well as the few remaining ripe tomatoes (a mix of Roma. Virginia, and Cherokee Purple), this casserole blew me away in its simplicity. Instead of the usual Italian-influenced tomato sauces I normally simmer, this one features cumin, garlic, and a hint of paprika—just enough heat to warm the palate, but a mostly mild dish with earthy-bright tones from the cumin. It’s a time consuming dish, but worth it, and especially appropriate with the cooler, dreary weather.

The only changes that I made to the dish were 1) not peeling & deseeding the tomatoes, 2) adding a bit of hot paprika instead of sweet paprika, and 3) pureeing the sauce after cooking it. I also halved the recipe, which is how I’m writing it here. Otherwise, it’s written as is and I highly recommend it. Olive Trees & Honey is going to get a workout this winter, I can sense it, and I can’t wait to delve deeper into its pages.

Yemenite Eggplant Casserole

1 large eggplant (1 ½ lb total), peeled
1 tbsp sea salt
Vegetable oil for frying

1 tbsp olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 tsp ground cumin
¼ tsp turmeric
1 lb tomatoes, chopped (about 3 cups)
½ tsp salt
¼ tsp hot paprika
Ground black pepper to taste

Cut the eggplant crosswise into ½-inch-thick slices. Put on a wire rack over a baking tray and sprinkle lightly with the salt. Let stand at least 1 hour. Rinse the eggplant under cold water and pat try between several layers of paper towels until the slices feel firm and dry.

Meanwhile, to make the sauce, heat the tbsp of olive oil in a saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion and sauté until soft and translucent, 5-7 minutes. Add the garlic, cumin, and turmeric and sauté for 30 seconds.

Add the tomatoes, salt, paprika, and pepper. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to low, and simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until the tomatoes break down into a sauce, about 20 minutes. Puree in a food processor or blender until smooth. Set aside.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Oil a casserole dish (I used a pyrex oval dish that’s approximately 6” in diameter at the wide point and 5” tall).

In a large, heavy skillet, heat 3 tbsp vegetable oil over medium heat. In batches, fry the eggplant, turning once, until lightly browned and fork-tender, 3-5 minutes per side. Transfer to a paper towels to drain.

To make the casserole, arrange a layer of eggplant slices in the prepared casserole dish and spread with a layer of sauce on top. Repeat layering until all the eggplant is used, ending with a layer of sauce.

Bake until heated through, about 30 minutes.

Serve with bread (I made my recipe for Perfect Pita which I completely forgot to use in the photos—ugh.)

Serves 4

On This Day in MoFos Past:
2009: Why I Love Virginia
2010: Roasted Garlic & Butternut Squash Tomato Soup
2011: Boylan Heights

21 Responses to “Olive Trees & Honey: Yemenite Eggplant Casserole”
  1. I love the simplicity of this dish, and the sauce looks intriguing. I may have found the missing layer to the lasagne I’ve been planning!

  2. lazysmurf says:

    I have both those books!!! I love Olive Trees and Honey too although it really needs more olive recipes imo. Not every recipe is great since they are all really authentic but it is a very inspiring book and I love all the history too. The eggplant casserole sounds fabulous! Maybe I’ll get some at the market this weekend, I feel like I should enjoy the last of the summer vegetables.

  3. I’ve had my eye on that one : ) sounds more grass-roots and practical than the Ottolenghi new one. Although his pictures are probably prettier…

  4. Yes! 30 days of Olive Trees and Honey!! I haven’t made this dish yet but can recommend the Ethiopian split pea puree, the mujaddara and fassoulia! Can’t wait to see what you make me bookmark. :)

  5. ameyfm says:

    I love Olive Trees & Honey! Such a cool book. I love all the recipes, and the research, and the stories, and all the variations. It’s such an amazing book!

  6. Vanessa says:

    I’m normally not a huge fan of casserole… But I’d eat the hell out of this! Wow.

  7. Mel says:

    This looks so good, I love eggplant when it’s cooked properly and this recipe sound like an awesome one!

  8. FoodFeud says:

    I’m very intrigued by the vegetarian dishes of the middle east… eggplant and tomato are not too prevalent elsewhere. This sounds fantastic, though.

  9. I love a good cookbook bargain! The casserole looks so tasty and simple – I’ll trade you a bowl of lentil stew over polenta for a bowl of eggplant casserole! :)

  10. I think I’m going to need o get my hands on this book ASAP. Interlibrary loan, here I come!

  11. Well done! Thanks for sharing the recipe. I’ll be making it. :)

  12. chow vegan says:

    Such beautiful colors! Sounds like an awesome cookbook, I’ll have to look for it. Instead of 30 days of Olive Trees & Honey next year, how about 24 days now? or 10 days? 7? :-)

  13. Mands says:

    That looks like such a healthy comfort food-type meal and thanks so much for sharing the recipe – I love that you didn’t bother peeling or de-seeding the tomatoes, I never do either!

  14. erinwiko says:

    Wow, this looks amazing and the book sounds great! It’s gone on my wish list for sure.

  15. kittee says:

    First, I can’t believe you found Olive Trees and Honey for $9! That is awesome. I love reading through this book, but I can’t believe I’ve never cooked from it, and I’m kicking myself, cuz I’m not sure the FarMar even has eggplant anymore. Super short season here for them here. That dish looks killer good.
    xo kittee

  16. We made this last night and it was awesome! We put it on top of pasta. We’ll have to go look for Olive Trees and Honey now.

  17. Monica says:

    It’s raining and cats and eggplants here in the UK this morning, and I woke up thinking of eggplant, specifically YOUR eggplant in this picture when you posted it on Flickr. So here I am for the recipe. Sunday lunch is coming right up…

  18. Monica says:

    Made it. Ate it. Loved it. The tomato sauce alone is going into my repertoire of “regulars”. Outstanding.

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