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.)