Saturday, January 30, 2010

The power of a vegetable

Give us Greeks a vegetable, any vegetable, and we're going to transform it, chop it, fry it, stuff it, grill it, bake it, broil it, you name it! We have a real talent for that. Or perhaps we just have access to so many vegetables that we have to do something with them.
When I was little, I hated almost any vegetable I laid my eyes on, let alone put them in my mouth. I didn't even give them a chance. They were too green, too soft, too hard, too bitter (never too sweet mind you), too slimy, too awful smelling, too... anything! I was driving everyone crazy. Little did I know that a couple of decades later, I would be the stronger supporter of vegetables in my family. What? Having a meal without a vegetable being included? Unfathomable! Oh, how times change.






As it happened with eggs, my mother had to find ways to make me eat some vegetables. Camouflage was the name of the game. Vegetables not in plain sight, but artfully covered or mixed with let's say pasta, rice or meat.
The addition of a heavenly minced meat-tomato sauce filling (or better yet topping) and some scrumptious cheese on top, was all little Magda needed to be persuaded to eat a stuffed eggplant, or as we call it in Greek "Melitzanes Papoutsakia", the actual translation of which is "Eggplant little shoes".






This is a recipe well rooted in the hearts and stomachs of every Greek. It is a staple dinner dish enjoyed by the whole family, though still a special one that can be served at a celebratory dinner or a special occasion. Including hearty vegetables, meat, dairy in the form of cheese and of course olive oil, it covers every single food group a person needs to incorporate into his daily diet. And flavor, oh the flavor. It's magnificent. The slight bitterness of the eggplant marries perfectly with the sweetness of the tomato and the earthiness of the onion. The meat lends its precious proteins to the dish, making it both satisfying and substantial, and the melting cheese on top, cascading down the shiny eggplant, gives an extra depth of flavor to the overall dish.






Stuffed eggplant is a versatile dish, since you can either serve it as a main or as a first course dish. Either way, be sure to pair it with a nice bottle of robust red wine, like the excellent Greek wine Amethystos, which is a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and an ancient Greek variety called Limnio.











Melitzanes Papoutsakia (Greek Stuffed Eggplants with Minced Beef-Tomato Sauce Filling and Kefalotyri Cheese)


Literally every home cook in Greece makes their minced meat-tomato sauce filling in a different way. I suppose it's a matter of taste as well as family tradition. I've played around with enough ingredients myself for this recipe over the years, making this filling different almost every time, but the following recipe is my favorite.
Feel free to experiment yourselves, using your own taste and instinct. Keep in mind though that the more ingredients you add to your sauce, the less room you're leaving for the eggplant to shine as the main ingredient of the dish. Less is more in this case for me.




In Greece, the majority of people eat veal instead of beef, so that would customarily be the minced meat of choice for this dish. But beef works marvellously as well in this recipe, as long as it's a clean, lean cut of beef.

Traditionally, the cheese used in this dish is Kefalotyri, a hard, yellow Greek cheese made from raw goat or sheep's milk that has a slightly salty, mildly acidulous flavor and a sharp aroma. This cheese will bring authenticity to the dish.
Alternatively you can use Pecorino Romano or Parmiggiano Reggiano (Parmesan cheese) and if you're a Dutchie or simply want to try a cheese from the Netherlands, you can use Oude Geitenkaas, an aged goat's cheese which is fantastic.


Yield: 4-5 main course servings or 9-10 first course servings*

Ingredients
5 large eggplants (around 19 cm in length each)
1/3 cup olive oil
1 medium-sized onion, chopped
1 medium-sized garlic clove, sliced
400 g minced beef (from a lean piece of beef)
400 g fresh tomatoes, skinned, seeded and cubed or canned diced tomatoes
2 tsp tomato paste
2 fresh thyme sprigs or 1/8 tsp dried thyme, crumbled
A small pinch of sugar
1/2 cup water
Salt
Freshly ground black pepper
130-140 g Kefalotyri cheese, grated


Preparation
Be sure to choose eggplants that are firm, with a vibrant purple color, smooth skin and no disfigurement whatsoever. You also need to buy eggplants of similar size so that they take an equal amount of time to cook.
Wash them well under cold water, cut off their green stems and leaves and cut them in half lengthwise. Prick lightly with a fork the inside of the eggplants.
If you want to take the bitterness out of the eggplants, sprinkle the inside with some salt and leave them inside a colander for an hour. Then rinse them well and squeeze them lightly to get a little bit of their juice out.
You can skip this part, and actually I do, because I rarely find eggplants bitter nowadays.

Preheat your oven to 180 degrees Celsius. Place the eggplant halves, skin side down, on a baking pan, sprinkle with a little salt and black pepper (if you have left them salted for an hour then you do not need to salt them again) and put pan on the middle rack of the oven. Bake them for about 45 minutes, until they soften but are not cooked all the way. You don't need them to be overly soft because they're going to bake for another 30-35 minutes.

Meanwhile, start preparing the filling. Heat the olive oil in a medium-sized, heavy-bottomed saucepan, over medium-high heat. Sauté the onions for about 5 minutes, until they become soft and transparent and then add the garlic. Sauté for 1 minute and add the minced beef. Sauté the meat for 4-5 minutes, stirring continuously with a spoon or spatula, until browned. Season with salt and black pepper, add the tomatoes and tomato paste and stir well.
Then add the thyme and sugar and pour the water all over the ingredients. Stir well and let the mixture come to the boil, uncovered. Once it does, cover and cook over low heat for 20 minutes, or until the meat is almost cooked.
While the filling is cooking, you need to keep an eye on it, stirring occasionally, because it might need more water.
Once cooked, the filling should not be dry. It must have an average amount of liquid in it in order to permeate the eggplants and give them extra flavor.

Press the inside of the partially cooked eggplants a little bit with a spoon to create a shallow shell and add the filling on top of the whole eggplant**. Place the baking pan on the middle rack of the oven and bake for 25 minutes at 180 degrees Celsius. Take the pan out of the oven and add a generous amount of grated cheese on top of the filling. Bake for another 10 minutes until the cheese has melted and has taken on a golden color.

Place stuffed eggplants on individual dishes and serve immediately.


*In case you want to make this dish for 2 people, you can buy and cook only two eggplants and use the rest of the beef-tomato sauce the next day, on top of a nice big bowl of spaghetti. Don't forget to grate your favorite cheese on top.

**Variation: At this point you can also add a béchamel sauce on top of the filling, but I usually avoid doing that because the dish becomes too heavy.






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11 comments:

  1. I love stuffed eggplants, Magda. The meat sauce looks delicious.

    xoxo

    Nisrine

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  2. Teleia ta papoutsakia sou. You remind me of one of my children who still reacts the same at the view of vegetables but as years pass I see that he has began to eat a few veggies he wouldn't in the past.

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  3. Nisrine, thank you!

    Ivy, it's funny how children are born with an aversion to anything healthy! It seems though that we all eventually grow out of it and try something that is good for us.

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  4. καλώς σε βρήκα στη μικρή σου κουζίνα, τελικά πως γίνεται οι Έλληνες και βρίσκουμε ο ένας τον άλλο και στην άκρη του κόσμου είναι απίθανο, αγαπημένο φαγάκι, έτσι αφού μας καλοδέχεσαι με αγαπημένα φαγάκια θα σε επισκεπτόμαστε κάθε φορά για κέρασμα

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  5. Καλώς ορίσες!! Πόσο χαίρομαι όταν βλέπω σχόλια από συμπατριώτισσες!
    Σ' ευχαριστώ για τα καλά σου λόγια κι η "πόρτα" της κουζίνας μου είναι πάντα ανοιχτή για κέρασμα!

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  6. This looks delicious--I love eggplant! I just made stuffed bell peppers last night... I will definitely be trying this soon. Thanks for sharing :-)

    PS Do try the Pea Soup! We've perfect weather for in ;-)

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  7. I love stuffed eggplant and we are well overdue to have some. This was a great reminder.

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  8. I love that first photo of eggplant! My grandma actually makes something very similar to this. Isn't it great how recipes travel across cultures? Eggplant totally rocks.

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  9. I love eggplants. This is a really good recipe. Thanks for sharing.

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  10. mmm... πολύ αγαπημένο πιάτο και το αποτελεσμά σου δείχνει πεντανόστιμο... Μάγδα, μου έδωσες ιδέα να το φτιάξω να το φτιάξω veggie style...
    (μόνο που προσωπικά προτιμώ τα λαχανικά και τα φρούτα να τα τρώμε στην εποχή τους, έτσι έχουνε λιγότερα φυτοφάρμακα αλλά και αν είναι βιολογικά, t;ote στην εποχή τους είναι πιο νόστιμα, nevertheless looks such a wonderful plate....)

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  11. Ελένη, σ'ευχαριστώ. Και μένα μου αρέσουν οι μελιτζάνες veggie style, δηλαδή μελιτζάνες ιμάμ, με κρεμμύδια και ντομάτα. Είναι πεντανόστιμες και θα τις βάλω στο blog κάποια στιγμή. Όντως όταν τα λαχανικά και τα φρούτα είναι στην εποχή τους είναι ό,τι καλύτερο. Η γεύση τους είναι ανώτερη αλλά και η θρεπτική τους αξία σημαντική. Στην Ολλανδία δεν υπάρχουν μελιτζάνες, είναι πάντα εισαγωγής. Από εκεί που προέρχονται όμως είναι η εποχή τους και πάντα προσπαθώ, όπως και πολύς κόσμος πια, να παίρνω βιολογικά προιόντα. Είναι σημαντικό πιστεύω για την υγεία μας κι είναι εξαιρετικό το ότι πλέον μπορούμε να έχουμε πρόσβαση σε αυτά.

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