Thursday, August 28, 2008

Patlıcan Beğendi (Creamy Eggplant Purée)

Patlıcan Beğendi is a Turkish dish and the name translates roughly as "The eggplant pleased (someone)", and if you make this, I can assure you that the eggplant will certainly please you (patlıcan beğeneceksin for you language buffs, and note that the 'ğ' is not really pronounced, so it's more like 'beyendi' or 'beyenejeksin' depending on what you want to say)!

This dish was the first meal I had in Turkey, and I don't think I'll ever forget those first few bites! I had been backpacking all over Europe for four weeks with three friends - two Turkish, and one other American - and we had arranged to spend the last 5 days of the trip in the Turkish girls' native city of Istanbul.

While all backpacking trips involve a good deal of 'roughing it', the journey to Istanbul was a particularly difficult stretch. It took us a full two days starting from Venice in the morning, taking the train to the Italian port of Ancona, then a 19-hour ferry ride to Patras in Greece, sweaty crowded trains all along the coast of Greece up to Thessaloniki, where we spent a mostly sleepless night on the street outside the train station (they closed for cleaning from 2:30 to 5 am), and another long train ride to Istanbul, with some highly suspicious stops at the border in between.

As you can imagine, by the evening when we finally made it to Istanbul, we were filthy, exhausted and pretty darn hungry, having eaten little but train station sandwiches for the past few days. When we walked into the friend's apartment where we would be staying, it was like re-entering a long-forgotten world - oh yes, people do live in houses. Houses with showers! Beds! Private bathrooms! And of course, home-cooked meals!

After we had showered off all the Grecian, Italian, and Turkish dirt that had steadily been collecting on us and all our things, we entered the kitchen, where the friend's housekeeper/cook/one-time nanny had prepared this dish for us.

Now eggplant, like spinach, is a food I almost never ate back home in the U.S. Personally, I think a large part of the reason for eggplant's relative unpopularity here is it's name - who wants to eat something called an eggplant? Patlıcan (pronounced more like patluhjan), or Italian melanzana or the French (and British) aubergine are all much more attractive words!

However, my friend said this was her absolute favorite dish, and it smelled wonderful, so we eagerly dug in. And of course, she was right - this dish is amazing, especially when you've been living off of sandwiches for several weeks. It's wonderfully filling and warm and tasty - just the sort of thing that should be served to travellers who haven't been inside a home in ages. This dish was thus the beginning of the eggplant-eating section of my life, which I hope will continue for many many more years!

In any case, I hadn't actually thought about this dish in quite some time, but I bought some eggplants this past weekend planning to make some baba ghanoush with them, but then I went and made hummus, which is so similar that the prospect of baba ghanoush just wasn't exciting me, when I suddenly remembered this dish. A quick internet search for terms like "Turkish eggplant cream" quickly brought me to this recipe, in various forms, and I began to check those out.

I even went to some Turkish sites and painstakingly attempted to translate them to make sure I would do things correctly (I once knew some Turkish and I like to be as authentic as possible). In the end I came up with the following recipe, which I guarantee will please, delight, and otherwise satisfy your gustatory senses.

You will need:
2 medium-sized eggplants
A largish pat of butter
50 g flour* (I used whole wheat which I think helps add flavor and richness)
A medium-sized glass of milk (I used whey from a previous ricotta-making endeavor)
50 g Parmesan (the Turkish recipes call for kaşar peyniri which is apparently a sort of yellowish, sheep's milk cheese. Not having any of this on hand, I opted for parmesan, which was suggested by many of the recipes in English)

Some recipes also call for the juice of one lemon, which you submerge the eggplant in after roasting, but I skipped this. I did garnish the dish with some tomatoes, and the acidity went well with the creaminess of the beğendi, so I imagine the lemon juice would be good as well.

*The Turkish recipes called for one coffee cup of flour. Of course, Turkish coffee cups are much much smaller than American coffee cups - if you think of an espresso cups' worth, that's probably about right.

Preheat your oven to about 200º C/400º F. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil, then wash and dry the eggplants. Prick some holes in their skin with a fork to prevent them from exploding in the oven, and place them on the baking sheet. When the oven is hot, put in the eggplants and let bake for about 40 minutes, turning them every so often with tongs or some such implement to be sure they bake evenly.

Once the skin of the eggplants is all black and crackly, take them out of the oven, wrap them tightly in aluminum foil and let them sit about 15 minutes to concentrate the juices. After the 15 minutes are up, unwrap and let cool.

Once the eggplants are cool enough to handle, remove the skins, holding the eggplants over a bowl so that you can catch all their juices, and let the eggplant flesh fall into the bowl. Mash up all the flesh to a nice creamy mush.

Heat the butter in a pot over the stove until it melts. Once it melts, add the flour, and stir. When the flour is goldeny, add in the milk (or whey), a little bit at a time, stirring continuously. After you've added all the milk, mix in the eggplants, then throw in the salt and pepper. Let everything cook about 5 more minutes, stirring from time to time, and then add the parmesan. Let cook one minute more, spoon into a plate and serve warm!

There is also a version of this called Hünkar Beğendi, which basically means "It pleased the Sultan" and involves adding meat. Not being a sultan, I was pleased enough with my humble eggplants, and a small garnishing of tomatoes, but if you like a bit of meat with your eggplant, I recommend looking it up!

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