Going Back to Georgia
I first heard about Georgian food and how amazing it is when in St. Petersburg, Russia during a university summer abroad. I never did have a chance to try it while there; the restaurant that was recommended was out of my price range and my priority was drinks not food, anyway. I am happy to say that my priorities have shifted slightly since that summer 13 years ago.
A few years after that “can’t really say it was an introduction,” Georgian cuisine popped up on my radar again. I was working at an organization that ran development programs in the former Soviet Union. More than a few of my colleagues hailed from that part of the world or were expats who lived there for some bit of time. They all swooned about Georgian food, acting downright giddy when describing the flavours and dishes. Boy, did I regret cheap Russian beer taking precedence over some of the best things that people ever ate.
But my time did come to try Georgian food. On a trip to Ukraine (there are lots of Georgian restaurants in fellow former Soviet republics), I made it my mission to visit a Georgian restaurant. It lived up to all that hype. Georgian cuisine is a mix of Mediterranean and Middle-Eastern flavours with a bit of northern India thrown in, too. The flavours were vibrant with fresh, green herbs. The savoury dishes were exotic with blends of spices, nuts, and fruit. I spent the dinner mmm-ing and smiling as I ate. Food bliss.
Back in the States, it was now my turn to swoon over Georgian cuisine. And when someone was gushing about this dish or that dish, I was able to gush right along with them. I got what the fuss was all about. But where do you go from there? There were no Georgian restaurants anywhere near me. I found some copies of Georgian recipes but the ‘exotic’ ingredient list and ‘complicated’ steps intimidated me. This was about ten years ago – I was still building up my confidence in the kitchen when it came to unfamiliar ingredients and cooking techniques. I didn’t feel like I could make them myself. That lovely meal became a gilded, fairy tale food memory.
My favourite dish from that fairy tale meal was eggplant stuffed with an herby, garlicky, walnut mixture. I never had anything like it. This was the dish that I most keenly remembered as symbolizing what everyone thought was so amazing about Georgian cooking. The eggplant was so memorable that I carried the taste of it for ten years. I pined for it. And then after ten years go by, I realized that I should just make the dish myself. Surely, it can’t be that hard to make. And it’s not. It also helps that I’m way more confident in the kitchen than I was way back then. The ingredient list has a few things that require a special trip to a well-stocked spice purveyor but other than that, this dish is totally doable.
There was a significant amount of pressure for the eggplant to be really tasty. I pined for it for a whole decade. Would I even remember if this is what it’s supposed to taste like? It’s been so long. I’m happy to report that this is what I’ve been waiting for. This is that dish that I had so long ago! Well, to be honest, I’m about 90% sure that’s what it tasted like so many years ago. It has been so long; my memory might be a wee bit faulty. Regardless, this dish is so good and I’m so happy we are reacquainted.
This dish would be an exotic addition to a spread of little plates, zakusky, hors d’oeuvres (or whatever you like to call them).
Georgian Stuffed Eggplant with Walnuts
Adapted from The Georgian Feast by Darra Goldstein (University of California Press, 1999)
About the eggplants: you’re making rolls using the eggplant, so they’ll need to have some length to them (not squat). Japanese eggplants would be great for this. I used smaller sized graffiti eggplant that were slender-ish and long.
These are best served at room temperature. If you refrigerate them, take them out a bit before serving to take the chill off. You can make these a day in advance. They’re good for two days. Any longer than that, the texture and flavour suffer.
4 eggplants (on the smaller side with some length to them)
olive oil for frying eggplant
¾ teaspoon whole coriander seed
¾ teaspoon saffron
1 ½ teaspoons kosher salt
4 garlic cloves, peeled and roughly chopped
3 – 4 sprigs cilantro, roughly chopped
pinch cayenne pepper
pinch dried fenugreek leaves
2 cups roughly chopped walnuts
½ cup chopped cilantro
2 tablespoons chopped dill
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
seeds from half a pomegranate
Trim the top off an eggplant. Cut a thin slice off two opposite long sides of the eggplant. Basically, you’re taking off the skin so you don’t end up with some eggplant strips that have a long piece of skin on them. Very few folks (including me) want to eat that. Set the eggplant on one of the flat sides so it’s stable. The other ‘skinned’ side will be facing up at you. Slice the eggplant lengthwise into about ½ inch wide strips. You’ll probably get anywhere between 4 to 6 long strips from each eggplant. Repeat with rest of the eggplants.
If you’re using Japanese eggplants, you don’t need to salt them. But if you’re not, here’s what you do next: lay the strips out in one layer on paper towels, salt them and let sit for about 30 minutes. This will help remove any bitterness from the eggplant.
While you wait for the salted eggplant, make the stuffing.
Using a pestle and mortar, pound into a paste the coriander seed, saffron, salt, garlic, cilantro sprigs, cayenne, and fenugreek leaves. Set aside.
In a food processor, grind the walnuts to almost fine. Add the spice and herb paste you just made to the walnuts and then grind the walnuts a bit more until they’re fine and the paste is well incorporated. Tip out the walnut mix into a medium bowl. Drizzle the red wine vinegar over the mix and then toss in the chopped cilantro and dill. Mix until walnut mix and herbs are well blended. Taste the stuffing for salt and add if necessary. The stuffing should be salted enough, however. Set aside in the fridge until the eggplant is ready.
If you salted the eggplant and it’s been about 30 minutes, you’re ready to fry it. There should be beads of moisture on the eggplant strips; wipe them down with a paper towel. To fry the eggplant, use a large non-stick skillet. Eggplant is a sponge, soaking up a lot of oil when frying. A non-stick skillet will help lessen the amount of oil you’ll need for frying. Any bit helps when frying eggplant.
Set up 2 baking sheets lined with paper towels. You’ll put the fried eggplant on the paper towels to help soak up some of the oil when they come right out of the pan.
Heat about 2 tablespoons of olive oil in the large non-stick skillet over medium high heat. Make sure the oil is hot before you put the eggplant in. You should hear a sizzle when it hits the oil. Add about 5 to 6 eggplant strips to the pan; don’t need to be too careful of crowding but they shouldn’t overlap. Fry for about 5-8 minutes per side until golden in colour. If you’re using Japanese eggplants and didn’t salt them, you’ll need to salt your eggplant while you fry them. Flip over the eggplant strips and fry on the other side until done.
Don’t overcook the eggplant; they should be golden in colour and cooked through but they shouldn’t be too soft. The eggplant strips will need to retain their shape when you’re rolling them up. If they’re too, too soft, they’ll just fall apart when you try and work with them.
After the first batch is done, lay the eggplant out on the paper towels. Continue frying the rest of the eggplant strips in batches until all done. You will need to add olive oil to the pan in between batches. Let the oil heat up before you add the next batch of eggplant.
Take the walnut stuffing out of the fridge. Once the eggplant is cool enough to handle (this won’t take long at all), you’re ready to assemble.
Using a spatula or the back of a spoon, smear a thin-ish layer of the walnut mixture onto the length of the eggplant strip. Then starting at one end, roll up the eggplant. Place the roll seam side down when setting aside. Continue with the rest of the eggplant strips until you’re done.
Before serving, sprinkle the rolls with some chopped coriander and the pomegranate seeds. Now, I’m not a garnish-type person, but these eggplant rolls do benefit from a pop of colour. At first I thought the pomegranate seeds were an unnecessary (and expensive) garnish but the eggplant rolls taste really lovely with juicy bursts of sweet and tart flavour from the little pomegranate gems.
This recipe makes 20 stuffed eggplant rolls. This quantity will vary based on the size of your eggplant.