Stuffed eggplant: An appetizer with a barbaric nature

Jennifer Eremeeva contemplates western imports to Russia, from late-night TV to dinner party disasters, and still comes up with a winning appetizer to share.

Photographs by Jennifer Eremeeva

Everyone talks about the rise of xenophobia in Russia, but from where I’m sitting, copycat nation continues to be the watchword. It’s funny the things Russia does — and doesn’t — adopt from abroad.

The ubiquity of sushi continues to baffle me; the continued absence of “Downton Abbey” from the prime time line up disappoints me. Then there the things that just make me shake my head, like Ivan Urgant’s late night talk show, “Vecherniy Urgant,” which is an uncanny fusion of “Late Night with David Letterman,” “Jimmy Fallon,” “The Jay Leno Show,” and “The Tonight Show.”  Everything is copied from the Western models! I’m addicted to it.

Ingredients:

6 small, firm eggplants; 1 cup of walnuts;

1 bunch of cilantro; 4 Tbl of fresh tarragon;

⅓ cup of fresh parsley; 4 garlic cloves;

4 Tbl of fresh lemon juice; 2 tsp of fresh lemon zest;

4 Tbl of pomegranate syrup; 1/2 cup yellow onions, finely diced;

1 celery rib, peeled and finely diced;

⅔ cup of cooked bulgur wheat (⅓ cup uncooked);

1 tsp of sumac; 1 tsp of hot paprika; 1 tsp of salt;

⅓ cup of olive oil;

Garnish:

½ cup of fresh pomegranate seeds;

Fresh cilantro sprigs;

Scallions

I was seriously distressed, however, when the progressive dinner party made its insidious way to Moscow. I’ve been to four already this year, and I am ready to wave my white damask dinner napkin in surrender. This practice of moving around to different houses for each course has to be the most barbaric Western import since Peter the Great introduced keelhauling.  

No one wins at a progressive dinner party: Everyone has to clean up, no one gets a night away from the domestic routine or the kudos for producing a three-course meal. These truisms were brought home to me after the latest (and hopefully last) progressive dinner I attended. 

My soon-to-be-ex best friend, Jesus (pronounced, as he would be the first to tell you: ”Hey, Zeus!”) and I were in charge of the appetizers. Jesus completely upstaged me by going to Dorogomilovskiy market and buying a kilo of that black caviar they keep under the counter. 

I cried foul. I cried “unfair” and I cried many other things you can’t put in print. He just shrugged his Armani-clad shoulders and sashayed back to the car.

I needed a flashy dish that could be made ahead of time, and I needed one fast.  Eggplant to the rescue! This pungent autumn staple is another borrowed treasure, one that predates sushi by several centuries.

It found its way into Russia’s culinary canon from the Caucasus, where eggplant is practically a separate food group. I gave serious thought to making “eggplant caviar,” just to spite Jesus. This delightful riff on ratatouille combines grilled eggplant, tomato, onion.

The ripe pomegranates at the market stand, however, gave me a different idea: Georgian stuffed eggplants with walnuts and cilantro, garnished with fresh pomegranate seeds. Grilled or sautéed eggplants are stuffed with a tangy mixture of walnuts, cilantro, lemon, onions, and pomegranate syrup. 

The addition of bulgur is a departure from the traditional, but recommended, as it keeps the filling together.  The combination of bright southern colors with the musky flavors of autumn was a hit! 

Or at least, I think it was. We had to eat fast, then grab our coats to head to the main course. Next time, I’ll just make stuffed eggplants, and stay home and watch “Vecherniy Urgant” on my own.

Instructions:

1.  Remove the stems from the eggplants and slice them in half. Sprinkle with salt and stack in a colander placed over a draining board or bowl. Let sit for 45-75 minutes.

2.  Combine ⅓ cup uncooked bulgur wheat with ⅓ cup of water in a small saucepan and cook, covered for 10 minutes. Let stand covered for an additional 15 minutes to steam.

3.  Combine the walnuts, cilantro, tarragon, lemon zest, pomegranate syrup, and garlic in a food processor fitted with a steel blade and process for 2 minutes or until it is the consistency of dough. Transfer mixture to a mixing bowl.

4.  Add the onions, celery, cooked bulgur, sumac, paprika, and lemon juice.  Toss to combine. Adjust seasonings to taste with additional salt and pepper.

5.  Pat the eggplants dry with paper towel, then place them on a non-metal dish, cover with paper towel and microwave for 90 seconds.

6.  Heat the olive oil in a large skillet on medium heat. Place the eggplant flesh side down and sauté for ten minutes. Remove to a cookie sheet lined with paper towel to cool.

7.  Use a small, sharp knife and a teaspoon to create a shallow cavity in the middle of the cooked eggplant — leave at least ½-inch of the flesh.

8.  Arrange the eggplant on a serving platter, then spoon the walnut mixture into the cavity. Cover the platter with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 3 hours, or overnight.

9.  Garnish with pomegranate seeds, cilantro, and scallions just before serving.

Based on a recipe from “Please to the Table,” by Anya von Bremzen.

Priyatnogo Appetita!

Jennifer Eremeeva is an American free-lance writer longtime resident of Moscow.  She is the author of the humor blog, Russia Lite and creator and curator of the culinary website The Moscovore.  Her forthcoming book, Lenin’s Bathtub, is scheduled for publication in November.

All rights reserved by Rossiyskaya Gazeta.

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