A Taste of the Middle East….Right at Home (Part II)

I went to my local library the other day and took out a few cookbooks that I wanted to flip through since I’d likely be indoors because they were forecasting extremely cold weather this weekend. One was called “The Iraqi Cookbook” by Lamees Ibrahim. It caught my eye on the shelf because it is a large, gorgeously photographed book:

It is filled with traditional recipes that have been handed down through the generations. The book was written with the goal of bringing these recipes to the diaspora — perhaps those who can no longer read Arabic cookbooks, or those who grew up in Western households who didn’t learn how to cook these traditional meals.

The author uses mainly ingredients available to Western readers, as well as gives useful tips. She also suggests appropriate substitutions when necessary. Each recipe is accompanied by a beautiful color photo, making this cookbook a feast for the eyes as well as the appetite.

One recipe that caught my attention was Eggplant Turnover (Maqloobat Bathinjan), a wonderful “turnover” dish made of layers of rice, ground meat, onions, tomatoes, peppers with eggplant at the bottom of the pot. The pot is then inverted onto a plate for an impressive presentation.

The first time I made this, I failed miserably by overcooking the rice. It’s not a hard recipe, however. So, today I tried again and it came out perfectly. I made about 1/3 of the recipe below, and it’s still enough for three people.

What I learned:

1. As you layer the saucepan with the different ingredients, press each layer down firmly, otherwise when you add the water , everything will float up and it will become a soup. When making this the second time, after I layered and pressed each layer, I took a small plate and placed it on top and pressed the ingredients down one final time.

2. Don’t add too much water. Use only as much as the recipe indicates, even if it doesn’t look like enough. Add it slowly.

3. Do not overcook the rice!

I skipped soaking the eggplant and used drained canned chopped tomatoes instead of the paste and fresh tomatoes. I added slivered almonds to the rice for additional texture. You could probably also add raisins or another dried fruit into the rice for a bit of sweetness.

The dish was delicious.

Eggplant Turnover (Maqloobat Bathinjan)

(serves 6-8)

  • 3 cups rice
  • 1 lb ground meat
  • 2 large eggplants
  • 2 medium onions, chopped
  • 1-2 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 2 tbsp mixed spices (garam masala, see below)
  • 2 tbsp fresh or dried parsley
  • 2 tbsp tomato paste
  • 3 tomatoes
  • 3 green peppers
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • olive oil
Slice the eggplants into round discs about 1/2 inch thick. Soak in heavily salted water for at least one hour.
Chop the onions and saute for a few minutes until soft. Add the ground meat and cook for a few minutes. Add the garlic, the mixed spices, the parsley, salt and pepper. Cook for a few minutes until fully cooked through. Remove from pan and set aside.
Drain the eggplant and wash in cold water and dry. Place some olive oil in the pan and lightly fry the eggplant on both sides.
Line the eggplant slices at the bottom of a sauce pan. Add the meat mixture.
Chop the tomatoes and peppers. Mix together and add as the third layer.
Rinse the rice in cold water a few times. Add to the top of the tomato and pepper mixture.
Add 4 cups of water, or until the water is just above the level of the rice. Bring to a boil and then turn down the heat and simmer for about 20 minutes.
Using a large platter, place it on top of the pan. Hold firmly and turn it upside down. Serve immediately.
Garam Masala

There’s no need to run out and buy this spice. You can make it at home. It’s simply a mixture of spices you most likely have. I had all except the cloves, but that’s fine. The recipe below makes about 1/4 cup.

  • 1 tbsp ground cumin
  • 1 1/2 tsp ground coriander
  • 1 1/2 tsp ground cardamom
  • 1 1/2 tsp ground pepper
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp ground cloves
  • 1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
Mix all the ingredients together and store in an airtight container. Store in a cool, dry place.

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