As a cooking instructor I like it when people listen to me. Follow my guide and instructions. At the same time I tell them not to listen too much to me. It has not really something to do with this recipe for the Turkish classic Imam bayildi, but in a way it does.
Imam bayildi is one of my all time Summer favorites. Ever since I learned to make these vegetarian, damn, vegan even, stuffed eggplants in 2006, I make them multiple times per Summer. They’re that good!
Since a month or so I have a second job, doing cooking demos for small groups. I can do my own recipes and teaching for small groups is different, but informal, personal and very interactive. And as people return to your classes, you get to know them. Well at least a bit. Last week someone was brave enough to tell me she had tried my chicken meatballs recipe from the week before, but failed.
Can you fail a recipe?
Yeah, of course.
If you don’t read the recipe.
If you don’t follow the instructions.
But I like to state that there is another way of messing up a dish.
You can fail a recipe by following it too strict.
The lady told me that her balls came out a little bit too tough, so I suggested to try them again on a lower, more moderate heat to keep them tender. Or a bit shorter on the heat she was using. We talked some more and she vowed me – hand on her heart – that she followed my recipe strictly. Twice. She told it me twice.
Then she asked me for the name of the brand of the skillet I was using as that might help her baking the chicken meatballs.
I refused to give it to her.
A few days later J. Kenji López-Alt phrased my thoughts like this:
Thinking that you need fancy pots and pans to cook well is like thinking that you need a fancy pen to write well.
— J. Kenji López-Alt (@TheFoodLab) 7 juli 2016
Of course, a nice pen that fits perfectly in your hand will give you some more joy while writing, and maybe you’ll write more often and so you’ll keep practicing. But that, exactly that is how you become a better writer. Practice! Try! Test! Write! Play! Cook!
Believe me, fancy tools definitely aren’t a necessity to cook well. I mean, should the lady also buy the same stove that I was using? A stove that I’d never cooked on before and still managed to make some nice meatballs on? You see that’s ridiculous, right?
… don’t listen to me.
But do learn to listen to your pots and pans, to the food that is transforming in them. Sounds will tell you all. Just like tasting a dish in the various stages while cooking.
I again urged the woman to try the recipe one more time now tempering the heat. And to open one of the meatballs and check, taste it at three-quarter of the prescribed cooking time. That’s okay. That’s what chefs do as well, only you don’t get those on your plate. Chef’s eat them themselves. Tasting is one of the best perks of cooking, right?
Today’s recipe is for Imam Biyaldi. During this same cooking demonstration I made something with eggplant and told the group about the famous Turkish recipe with eggplant that made an imam faint. The story doesn’t tell if that was either he was in shock by the generous use of (at that time) expensive olive oil, or because the dish was so good. I think it’s the latter reason. The dish is good. Really good. It takes some time, though, but it’s worth it.
Imam bayildi [vegetarian | vegan]
This Turkish classic is vegetarian, vegan even – although there are versions with minced meat. That’s not necessary, this version is good enough. I mean, it’s divine! I like to eat it with pide, a white, flat, airy Turkish bread. Unfortunately, I haven’t found a good baker in the San Francisco South Bay so I stick with a nice baguette or a simple pilaf style rice dish with raisins and pine nuts. I got this recipe from one of my first cookbooks “The Middle Eastern Kitchen” from Ghillie Basan and in all those years I’ve never changed it.
I used for a side for 2:
* 3 long thin eggplants, or 2 big round ones
* 1/2 onion
* 3 cloves garlic
* 3 tomatoes
* olive oil – lots of it
* 1 tablespoon sugar
* 1 bunch of fresh parsley
* 1 bunch of fresh dill
* salt and pepper
serve with: bread or rice (see above)
Prep the veggies. Bring a pot with a quart | liter water to a boil. With a sharp knife cut a cross in the tomato skins, not too deep, and plunge them in the boiling water. Remove after 10 seconds and peel off the skin after they’ve cooled a bit. With a vegetable peeler cut of stripes of the eggplant’s skin, so it looks like a zebra (so it doesn’t matter if it looks nice, don’t worry about that!). Peel and cut the onion and garlic. Chop the herbs.
Mix half the herbs with tomatoes, onions, garlic, salt and pepper.
Fry the eggplants. Pour olive oil in a Dutch oven to cover the bottom and fry the eggplants on low-medium heat, turning them regularly until they’re browned. If needed, add more olive oil.
Fill the eggplants. Remove from the oil and cut lengthwise to open them, like a canoe. With your fingers, make some space for the tomato filling. Fill the canoe. Eh, eggplants. It’s okay to overdo this and puff out the eggplants. Really, use all the tomato mixture.
Braise the imam bayildi. Put the eggplants back in the Dutch oven, pour some water (half a cup | 125 ml), sugar and if needed some olive oil over it. Close and let simmer for about an hour. Every now and then pour some of the braising liquids over the filling to help it cooking. The Imam bayildi is ready when eggplants are super soft and you’ll understand why I wanted you to stuff them to the max with the tomato mixture (’cause it’ll keeps them up a bit).
Garnish with the rest of the herbs and eat with bread or rice.
Now you’ve managed this Turkish classic Imam Bayildi, how about my eggplant-y take on a burger?