stuffed eggplant | sheikh mahshi

IMG_0787.JPG

There's this great episode of This American Life from a few years ago, where Sarah Koenig interviews her mother about her list of the seven things you're not supposed to talk about at a dinner party. One or two things on the list are clearly inappropriate for dinner conversation, but most things made her list because they're just so boring to talk about. So naturally, I thought it would be a great idea to write a blog post that encompasses (not one but) two of the things we're not supposed to talk about (in this case, diet and health)—and hopefully you'll find me interesting anyway. So, here it goes—I'm Kathryn, and I'm a Middle Eastern food blogger who can't eat eggplant. 

sheikh mahshi
sheikh mahshi
sheikh mahshi

When I was a kid, I used to eat eggplant all the time—we would always order baba ganoush with our takeout, and every summer my mom would grill up platters of portobello mushrooms, zucchini, and big thick-cut eggplant slices. When I was a vegetarian in high school, I ate even more eggplant (mostly because I thought it was a good source of vegetarian protein, because I was kind of clueless). And then eventually, it started making me really sick whenever I would eat it. My throat would get itchy, my tongue would swell, and my whole body would rebel. So finally, I had to give it up for good, and I haven't had any in over a decade.

This means that recipe developing with eggplant is very hit or miss (and not blogging about eggplant is out of the question, because it's an important part of the cuisine). Sometimes I make something with eggplant, feed it to friends and family, and they love it from the start. In this case, I would make it a couple more times with their minor suggestions, until they let me know it's perfect, and then the final recipe would make it to my blog. But if an eggplant recipe doesn't work out the first time, then it is simply dead on arrival, because there's no way for me to figure out how to fix something I can't actually taste. One of the best ways to avoid this DOA scenario is to stick to family recipes, which are already vetted by generations. And this, sheikh mahshi, is one of those recipes.

sheikh mahshi

Sheikh mahshi (also know as sheikh el-mahshi) are not only beautiful but they're also delicious, or so I've been told (I did taste the stuffing before it went into the eggplants, and it is absolutely scrumptious). My grandmother taught me how she makes sheikh mahshi, and I barely tinkered with her method to come up with the recipe below. It's my husband's favorite thing my grandmother makes, and I hope everyone who can consume eggplant enjoys this dish a little extra for me.

sheikh mahshi

sheikh mahshi

serves: 6 as a main, 12 as a side
active time: 1 hour 40 minutes
total time: 1 hour
download a PDF to print

2 pounds 5 ounces of mini eggplants (about 12 of them)
special equipment: zucchini corer *
Salt
2 tablespoons butter (divided in half)
1/2 cup pine nuts
Olive oil
1 medium onion, finely diced
1 1/2 pounds top round or sirloin, small dice into 1/4 inch pieces
1/2 cup chopped parsley, plus more for garnish
1 teaspoon allspice
28 ounce can diced tomatoes
(optional) more parsley for garnish

  • Wash the eggplants, and then peel about 4 or 5 stripes down their sides (as pictured). Cut as close to the stem as possible to remove them (discard the stems), and then slice about 1/4 inch off the top. Save these, so you can use them as caps.

  • Core the eggplants with a zucchini corer. Sprinkle their insides evenly with the 3/4 teaspoon salt and set them open-side-down to drain. Drain for 30 minutes to an hour.

  • Preheat the oven to 400° F.

  • While you're waiting on the eggplants, prepare the filling: Heat a large skillet over medium heat for about 2 minutes. Add 1 tablespoon of the butter, followed by the pine nuts, and cook, stirring constantly, for about 5 minutes, until the pine nuts are lightly toasted. Remove to a medium bowl.

  • Wipe down the skillet and add 1 tablespoon olive oil, followed by the onions. Stir occasionally, until they soften, about 7 minutes. Remove to the medium bowl.

  • Crack a window, turn on your exhaust, turn the heat up to high, and wait 1 minute. Add 1/2 teaspoon olive oil to the skillet, swirl to coat, and immediately add half of the diced meat and 1/2 teaspoon of salt. Cook, stirring every minute or two, until it browns (about 5 to 6 minutes). Remove the first batch of meat to the medium bowl with the onions and pine nuts, and immediately add another 1/2 teaspoon of oil and the rest of the meat. Let it cook until it browns, which will take a little less time than the first batch (about 3 to 4 minutes). Remove to the medium bowl and let it cool for 2 minutes, then stir in the parsley and allspice. Remove the skillet from heat, and don't bother washing it yet (unless the bits stuck to it have turned from brown to black).

  • Stuff the eggplants with as much of the meat mixture as will fit. Take the reserved caps and squeeze them into the tops so they stay in place. **

  • Combine the leftover meat mixture with the can of diced tomatoes and return to the skillet. Simmer for about 2 minutes over medium heat, just to meld the flavors.

  • Pour half of the tomato-meat sauce into the bottom of a casserole dish. Arrange the stuffed eggplants on theirs sides. Pour the other half of the tomato-meat sauce over the tops, pushing big chunks of meat and tomato off the tops, so they fall down the sides. Drizzle the top with 1 tablespoon of olive oil, or go over it with cooking spray. Cover everything with foil, and bake for 30 minutes. Uncover and cook for another 10 minutes, or a little longer until the top is nicely caramelized (see the photo). Sprinkle with parsley (optional) and serve.

* You can easily find zucchini corers online, and in some Middle Eastern grocery stores. In addition to making dolma, they can be used for lots more (see the note at the end of my dolma recipe).
** Compress the edges of the cap and then work it into the top of the eggplant. Take the top and hold it so that all 5 fingertips are touching its edges. Gently squeeze the top so its diameter decreases, and place it in the eggplant opening. When it is sitting in the eggplant, the cap will flatten and it will be hard to remove it because the edges will catch. It's a little finicky, but fortunately it's also ok to just skip this step if it gives you too much trouble. A tiny bit of the filling might fall out during baking, but it'll be totally fine.

sheikh mahshi

a vegetarian meze dinner party

vegetarian meze dinner party

A few months ago, my friend Amadi suggested putting some of the recipes I've already posted together in a meal plan post. I immediately latched onto this idea, and have been daydreaming about it at least every day since then, but it sat at the bottom of my list for a long time because the idea of photographing and developing an entire dinner was totally daunting. I cook meals like this for friends and family all the time, and I post two new recipes here every week, but it would take so much more work to write and photograph an entire post about an elaborate dinner.

But it was during one of these moments of anxious daydreaming when I realized that, actually, most people are probably like me. While it can be fun to occasionally spend the whole day cooking, life is usually pretty hectic, and it would be so much more lovely to spend all the time you would have spent cooking just enjoying the company of friends and family, savoring a beautiful meal together. So for my first meal plan post, I've put together a classic dinner party that you can easily accomplish with just a little daily effort. Hopefully there will be more of these posts in the future (Sunday night meal prep, summer grilling, make-ahead brunches, and holiday planning are all on the horizon), but for now, I thought it would be nice to keep things simple with an easy vegetarian meze.

hummus
labneh

A meze (also known as mezze, mazze, or mazzeh) is a meal or appetizer course consisting of a bunch of small dishes. A meze will often include lots of finger foods, so it's a really great tool for entertaining, especially if you don't have enough room for a big seated dinner. And while this vegetarian meze looks elaborate, it actually only takes about 4 days of cooking for 35 minutes/day, to pull it off (not counting the optional tasks, like blending your own spices). It's absolutely not aspirational, even though it looks it.

The first trick to planning an easy dinner menu is knowing what to make when; for instance, the amba should be made earlier in the week because it needs a few days to pickle in the fridge, while the feta should be plated about an hour before guests arrive, and somewhere in the middle, the spreads won't suffer from sitting in the fridge for 1 or 2 days. By spacing things out, you'll only have to put in a little effort at a time.

amba
olives

But even more than scheduling, I'm a fan of relying on cleverness instead of hard work whenever possible. So the second trick is including a few things that you can buy, but which still seem really special and lovely. While making everything from scratch can be fun when you're looking for a big project, sometimes it's nice to simply place ingredients together in an appealing and surprising way. Everyone will be delighted with the feta, radishes, and herbs, which will take you literally 5 minutes to put together. Don't be surprised if this even outshines the homemade double-roast baba ganoush, which takes 45 minutes to make (although it's a tough call).

To make this meal plan super straightforward, I've put together a grocery list and schedule. If you follow my plan below, you'll totally pull it off with just a little effort every day. I've timed the schedule so that you will have everything ready for a Saturday dinner party, but you can obviously change the days if you'd prefer to throw a party on another day.

feta, basil, and radishes

The Menu: A Vegetarian Meze Dinner Party

Labneh dressed with extra virgin olive oil and za'atar or your favorite dried herb *
Hummus dressed with extra virgin olive oil and baharat or paprika
Baba ganoush dressed with olive oil and parsley
Tabbouleh (I added pomegranates to this one, which is optional)
Feta cheese with olive oil, basil (or mint), and radishes
Olives
Amba
Pita bread *

* For this easy menu, the labneh and pita bread are store-bought, but feel free to make your own if you're feeling ambitious.

Dietary restrictions

Edit the grocery list and schedule if you plan to add any of this to your menu:

To make this vegan, you could replace the labneh with muhammara or banadurah harrah, which would take more time to prepare, but can be made ahead of time on Thursday when you make the hummus (or you could just leave out the labneh). The feta can be replaced with your favorite vegan cheese.

Cooked quinoa can be used instead of bulgur in the tabbouleh, and you can use carrot and cucumber slices instead of pita bread, which makes the original menu gluten free.

The Grocery List

Pantry

2 15.5-ounce cans chickpeas
Tahini
Pita bread
Apple cider vinegar
Salt
Extra virgin olive oil
Bulgur (preferably burghul number 1, but couscous, quinoa, or another bulgur will work)

Spices

Za'atar or your favorite dried herb (optional: make your own za'atar)
Baharat or paprika (optional, make your own baharat)
Yellow curry powder
Ground fenugreek seeds (optional)
Turmeric powder
Red pepper flakes

Produce

7 lemons (if they don't seem very heavy, buy more to be safe)
3 pounds baby Italian eggplants (about 7 baby Italian eggplants)
1 small head garlic
3 big bunches parsley
4 plum tomatoes
1 bunch mint
1 bunch green onions
1 bunch basil (or skip it if your mint bunch is really big and you want to find a way to use it up)
1 bunch radishes
Assorted olives
3 green, unripe mangoes
Pomegranate seeds (optional, for the tabbouleh)

Dairy

Feta cheese
Labneh (if you can't find labneh, you can buy whole milk Greek yogurt and just use it as is. Greek yogurt is not exactly the same thing as labneh, but it's still very tasty, and great if you add a lot of extra toppings)

tabbouleh
baba ganoush

The Schedule

Wednesday

Go grocery shopping.
Pickle the amba. (25 minutes)

Thursday

Make the hummus and plate it, but don't dress it. (15 minutes)
Cut the pita bread into wedges and put it in a ovenproof serving dish. Cover it to keep it from drying out. (5 minutes)
Plate the olives. (1 minute)

Friday

Make the baba ganoush and plate it with the olive oil and parsley on top. (40 minutes)

Saturday morning

Make the tabbouleh and plate it (add pomegranate seeds if you bought them, and and use a food processor to chop the herbs by just pulsing them a few times, if you want to speed things up). (30 minutes)
Wash/dry the basil and slice the radishes. (10 minutes)
Set the table (either for a sit-down meal or hors d'oeuvres around a coffee table)

Saturday evening, the hour before serving

Plate the feta with olive oil, basil, and radishes. (2 minutes)
Plate the labneh with olive oil and za'atar/herbs. (5 minutes)
Dress the hummus with olive oil and paprika or baharat. (2 minutes)
Plate the amba or just open one of the jars. (1 minute)
Put the pita bread in the oven at 200° F for about 15 minutes until you're ready to serve. (1 minute active time)
Check the photo below to make sure you didn't leave something in the fridge, and enjoy!

vegetarian meze