Thursday, December 18, 2008

Hunkar Begendi - Turkish Eggplant Puree

Adapted from The Mediterranean Kitchen by Joyce Goldstein

If you actually know me, you know that I love meatballs. I mean I really LOVE meatballs. When Nick and Katie came for dinner a few weeks ago, Nick peeked into the pan and said, "Oh, meatballs." When I asked him if he liked meatballs, he said "Who doesn't like meatballs?" My feeling exactly.

That night I made one of my favorite dinners, Delia Smith's meatball goulash, using veal for the meatballs. Every single speck of food was eaten - all the goulash, buttered spaetzle, buttered green peas, cucumber salad, vanilla ice cream and raspberries.

And while I'm on the subject of meatballs, there is a restaurant at 60 Greenwich Avenue, Gusto, that Godfrey took us to one night. In addition to actually stocking Plymouth Gin at the bar so you can get a better-than-decent martini, they serve the most delicious meatballs.

They call them Sicilian meatballs (although I think Neapolitan would be a better name), presumably because they have raisins and pine nuts in them. That may sound unappealing, but trust me, they are out of this world - a little hill of eight meatballs bathed in a dark, savory tomato sauce in a shallow white bowl without pasta.

I know in Italy they don't serve meatballs with spaghetti, but I must admit that one night Sharon and I each got our own order of these meatballs and split an order of a very plain pasta to go with them. And a fine dinner it was.

Do go try these meatballs if you're in the area. I'm trying to duplicate them at home and haven't quite gotten it right, so I can use your suggestions. Plus, eating them will make you very happy. And, by the way, if you have any great meatball recipes, please let me know.

Why, oh why, am I carrying on about meatballs anyway? Because this is a recipe for Hunkar Begendi, a delicious eggplant puree that was served at Joyce Goldstein's restaurant, Square One in San Francisco, as a bed for little Turkish meatballs in tomato sauce. So when I started to post this recipe I had meatballs on my mind.

I have made her meatballs but have also served this puree many different ways. It goes well with leg of lamb and is perfect as part of a vegetable plate, especially if you want to serve a vegetarian meal, in which case I have served it with green beans in tomato sauce, Nanny's stuffed mushrooms, cucumber salad with dill strewn over the top, and pita bread.

Unless you totally hate eggplant, including baba ghanoush, you will want to try this recipe. It's really good and a little different.

A tip about eggplants I got from a very early issue of Cook's Illustrated magazine is to check out the bottom of the eggplant. If it's flat, it's a male and has few seeds; if it has an indentation, it's a female and has lots of seeds. I'm not a botanist (I know you didn't think I was a botanist - it's just an expression) so I don't know about the male/female thing (next summer you can ask the guy at the farmer's market), but I do know this trick works. I may not have explained it well, but once you start checking out the bottom of eggplants, you will see what I mean.  (Note:  This theory was debunked in a future issue of Cook's, but I still follow the recommendation because it has always worked for me.  Dumb luck, I guess.)

3 eggplants about one pound each (obviously not little Japanese ones)
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

1 cup of bechamel sauce made with the following:
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons flour
1 cup heavy cream
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.

Do not peel the eggplants. Wash them and prick them in a few places with a fork. Put in a pan, and bake, turning occasionally, until they feel soft. This will take about 45 minutes to one hour depending on your oven and the eggplants. Remove them from the oven, and let cool slightly until you can handle them. Cut them in half, scoop the flesh into a colander to drain for about 15 minutes. Puree the flesh in a food processor.

While the eggplants are cooling, make the bechamel. In a small pan or the microwave, heat the heavy cream until warm. Melt the butter in a pan over low heat. If you happen to have a small windsor pan, now is the time to use it. Add the flour, and cook, stirring for about 4 minutes until well blended. Whisk in the warm cream, and continue to whisk until thick. This should take another 4 minutes. Then add the salt, pepper, and nutmeg.

Mix the eggplant puree, bechamel, and Parmesan cheese in a bowl. Adjust the seasoning, if necessary. You can keep it warm over hot water in a pan or heat in the microwave right before serving.

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