Many moons ago, I somehow came into possession of a quirky little cookbook written by a professor at Reed College in Portland, Ore., “The Impoverished Student’s Book of Cookery, Drinkery and House Keepery” by Jay F. Rosenberg. In those days, you could rent a four-bedroom house for less than $100 a month, throw in $10 each a month for food and live pretty high. The section on budgeting is hilarious — spaghetti for a crowd for less than $5! Reed is a liberal arts college near Portland, Ore., a VERY liberal arts college, a haven for the creative, artistic and iconoclastic, the takers of other paths. Prof. Rosenberg personifies the Reed ethos.
My battered and oil-stained copy of the book has disappeared but one recipe has remained with me. It is perhaps the best known of Turkish dishes: Imam Bayildi. The name is said to mean “The Priest Fainted,” and there are quite a number of stories behind the title.
Prof. Rosenberg tells his version very amusingly. It seems the imam (priest) had to go out for the day and asked his young wife to make him something nice for dinner. Apparently, she wasn’t much of a cook but she did her best. When the priest got home, he found a bubbling hot dish of eggplant stuffed with tomatoes and flavored with herbs and garlic. “Fatima,” he said (all imam’s wives are named Fatima), “this is delicious! What did you put into it?” “Oh,” she said, “you know, just what I found in the market — some eggplant, some onions and tomatoes, some olive oil . . . ” “Olive oil!,” exclaimed the parsimonious priest (olive oil was expensive), “how much olive oil?” “Oh,” she said, “I don’t know.” “But how much, 25 mililiters?” (They were on the metric system.) “No, a little more than that.” “Fifty?” “A little more.” “Seventy five?” “Noooo,” said Fatima, coyly, “a little more.” “Well how much,” blurted the imam, beginning to get a little hot under his turban. “A litre,” said Fatima, shamefacedly. And the priest fainted.
In the book’s version of Imam Bayildi, standard eggplant (the big, egg-shaped ones) are roasted, the flesh scooped out, then mashed with a few good glugs of olive oil, tomatoes, garlic and some dried herbs, then finished off in the oven. This dish can also be made on the stovetop.
All this is a long-winded way of saying, we had Imam Bayildi for dinner last night — or at least my inauthentic version of it. It’s usually a vegetarian dish, but I added ground pork. It’s usually made with fresh, ripe, peeled, seeded and chopped tomatoes but I used canned. And I used Japanese eggplant because they’re easier to work with.
Here’s how I did it:
Thickly slice 3 Japanese eggplants, line them up on paper towels and sprinkle with salt. Let sit for a half hour.
Meanwhile, in a large frying pan, lightly brown a pound of ground pork; drain and place in a large bowl. Discard fat.
Heat 3 tablespoons olive oil just until smoking. Wipe salt and expelled liquid from eggplant and brown over medium-high heat until golden on both sides. Place in bowl with pork.
Place 2 tablespoons olive oil in the same frying pan, heat over medium-high heat and add 2 halved and sliced onions. Turn down heat and cook until limp and caramelized. Add to pork and eggplant.
Add to pork and eggplant: 1/4 cup minced parsley, 3 cloves minced garlic, 1 (14-ounce) can chopped tomatoes and 1 (6-ounce) can tomato paste. Drizzle in the juice of 1 lemon. You can add fresh or dried herbs at this point.
Stir this mixture, pour it into a casserole dish (I used a glass 9-by-13) and bake at 300 degrees for 30-40 minutes. Serve with brown rice.
Husband’s comment: “You can do this one again anytime.” He thinks this melting mixture would be great as a pupu, piled on top of crisp, garlickey baguette slices.