All right…at some point I’ll get on schedule where I blog as soon as I cook, or cook as I blog…but for now I’ll share with you a recipe that I haven’t made in over a month. The reason why I share this is because it’s by far one of my favorite Azerbaijani dishes: Badimjan Dolmasi (Eggplant “stew” or stuffed Eggplants is the best way to describe it). Don’t worry, the dish is not composed of Eggplants only, it also contains tomatoes and bell peppers, all three stuffed with sautéed ground meat and stewed to perfection. I couldn’t really tell you why it’s my favorite dish, but it is. The flavors are just perfect; it’s savory, filling and homey (at least to me). It’s also simple to make, once you’ve gotten used to making it. I’ve only made it 4 times in the past year (I don’t know that may be a lot for some folks) but I can at this point make it with my eyes closed (ha-ha I almost believed that one).
So the basic concept is simple enough: sauté ground beef with some spices; “gut” the vegetables, fill them with meat, place them in a pan, add butter and water and let cook for 30-45 minutes. However, with this recipe it’s the little details that make or break it. The timing is very important; you don’t want your vegetables to turn to mush while cooking. Also, the technique: should you roast or boil your eggplants to make them softer? And what about peppers? Should you keep the tomato pulp? And so on.
Perhaps this is why I love this recipe: it requires a lot of attention to details and personal touches. It took me 2 times making it until I was able to get everything just where I liked it: the meat tasting just right, the tomatoes staying in shape and not becoming too mushy. I tend to get frustrated when something doesn’t work EXACTLY how I want it to, so I was very relieved when it all finally came together.
What you will need:
1-1 ½ lbs of ground beef, good quality, or a combination of lamb and beef (Whole Foods has great quality ground beef)
1 tsp salt
1 tbs dry mint
½ cup butter
*you can use olive oil as well, but them eat will taste much better with butter
4 green peppers
*I use Cubano ones usually, but this time I used bell peppers
4 medium to large tomatoes
4 medium to small sized eggplants
*now this is where I always encounter problems where I live. The only eggplants I can find are the really huge ones, and they just do not work for this recipe. They take up too much space and it makes no sense. I’ve gotten lucky a few times where at my local grocery store I was able to find small, individually wrapped eggplants. But that does not happen often. So if you have a place nearby that sells “normal” size eggplants, great. If you don’t, you can try the big ones.
A pinch of salt
1) Ground the lamb, or any other meat if you need to (like i did in the picture above). Place the ground meat in a frying pan, preferably a deep one, and add some water to it (about ¼ of a cup, little by little, don’t overdo it). Steam the meat in the water for a few minutes, breaking the meat up with a wooden spoon as you go along.
2) Once the water has evaporated completely (and you have to make sure it has evaporated, no ifs ands or buts) add the butter and sauté the meat up until it gets a nice brown color, continuing to break up the meat with the spoon. You don’t want the meat to sauté in chunks.
3) While the meat is cooking, you can add all the spices: salt, pepper, cinnamon and mint. Mix it up very well
4) Wash the tomatoes, and one by one cut off the top, and take care not to cut off too much. Do this by placing the tomato on its side, and making a vertical cut off the top, make sure to save the tops, you will need them again. Take a teaspoon and “gut” the tomato and clean out all the pulp; reserve the pulp Take care not to pierce through the tomato while cleaning it out.
5) Wash the peppers and also cut off the top and clean out the seeds with your hands. Save the tops of the peppers, with the stalk in tact.
6) Wash and dry the eggplants. Make a vertical slit on the inside of the eggplant, the side that curves in, not out. Salt inside the slits and set them aside for 10-15 minutes. Take a deep pan and place it on the stove, warm it up. LAY the eggplants side by side inside the pan (if your eggplants are too big, or pan too small, you can do this one by one, it will just take longer). Turn them around frequently, just until all sides have been roasted and the eggplant is semi-soft. This is done so it will be easier to stuff them. Once the eggplants have softened and done roasting, set the eggplants aside so they can cool. Once cooled, you can try and scoop some of the inside of eggplants out as well, be very careful, do not poke holes in them.
7) For starters, take a tablespoon of the meat and stuff the tomatoes, peppers and eggplants one by one. Then keep adding meat, until all vegetables are full, but not overflowing. You have to be able to put the tops back onto the tomatoes and the peppers. Eggplants are the trickiest in stuffing, so BE VERY CAREFUL not to pierce through any of the vegetables, but especially eggplants, because they will get very soft.
8) Once all the vegetables are filled, place the tops back onto tomatoes and peppers and lay them inside a deep pan or a pot. I use a pot most of the time. Place the eggplants first, and then if you have space on the same level, place the tomatoes and peppers side by side. If you don’t have the space, then make layers: eggplant, peppers and then the top layer should be tomatoes. The peppers and tomatoes should stand no problem, the eggplants you will need to lay on the side, and just squeeze them side by side so they support each other.
9) Once all the stuffed vegetables are set in the pan/pot pour just a little bit of water, about ½ cup just so they can steam. Place the reserved pulp from tomatoes on top. The tomatoes will release a lot of water themselves, so do not overdo it with the water (I’ve done that and the end result were tomatoes that fell apart when trying to pick them up to serve, which resulted in the meat being all over the pot and not on your plate).
10) Cut up half a stick of butter into chunks, and place them all over the vegetables. The thing with Azerbaijani dishes is that flavor is everything and butter is everything (ha-ha). You want this dish to be savory and butter helps with it a lot.
11) Turn the heat to medium-low and let it cook/steam for about 30 minutes. Check the vegetables from time to time. Once the peppers and eggplants look like they’ve steamed enough, the dish is done!
Serve with some garlicky yogurt and bread!