Imam Bayaldi Eggplant: Good Faint Praise
The generosity of a shoreside friend results in a cache of garden veggies and a dish so delicious it might make you swoon. People & Food from our October 2012 issue.
The prospect of a week of vacation sailing loomed as we barreled along on a broad reach toward Greece’s Peloponnesus on Stressbuster, our Atlantic 70 cutter. My husband, Kostas, relaxed at the helm as the autopilot did its work while friends and I lounged under the sun awning’s welcome shade. A last-minute charter cancellation had freed us for the week, and we were seizing the opportunity to visit (without charter guests aboard) some of our own favorite off-the-beaten-path places near our home port south of Athens. Today’s destination: the village of Plaka, in the town of Leonidion, a peaceful, picturesque fishing and agricultural burg where the clock seems to have charmingly stopped sometime around 1945.
As the sun disappeared over velvety mountain peaks, we doused sail and headed under power into the anchorage. We hadn’t stocked much in the way of fresh produce, because one of the pleasures of visiting Plaka is seeing our friend Margarita, who owns and runs the best of three tavernas in the village. Margarita grows all her own produce in an immense organic garden, and in the true Greek spirit of hospitality, she shares her bounty with friends who arrive on visiting yachts.
We caught up with our friend and her family over a prolonged and delicious meal at Margarita’s taverna that evening. Rising early the next morning and rubbing sleep from my eyes as the coffee brewed, I smiled when I glimpsed an assortment of bags secreted in the cockpit; they brimmed with enough fresh fruit and vegetables to stock a small market. Margarita had visited while we slept, leaving gifts: kilos of fresh apricots, green beans, tomatoes, cucumbers, sprigs of oregano and thyme, zucchini, and—of course—eggplant. We were, after all, in the eggplant capital of Greece, a distinction that’s celebrated each August when Plaka hosts an Annual Eggplant Festival to showcase its prizewinning crop.
The eggplant were the small, long, light-purple variety, perfect for making one of my favorite Greek dishes, one that actually originated in Turkish cuisine. It’s called Imam Bayaldi, and according to culinary legend, the recipe received its name when the housekeeper of an Islamic spiritual and temporal leader invented it one afternoon for his lunch. It was so blissfully delicious that after the first bite, the imam fainted! There are many variations of this recipe in Greece; this version is my own adaptation. The Imam I prepared that day using Margarita’s eggplants was pure bliss. Happily, no one fainted!
Imam Bayaldi Recipe
12 small, oblong eggplants
1 1/4 cups olive oil
2 medium onions, chopped
4 to 5 cloves garlic, minced
Handful parsley, chopped
Pinch of fresh oregano (optional)
2 12-ounce cans diced tomatoes
(or equivalent fresh)
Salt and pepper, to taste
1 teaspoon sugar
Preheat oven to 375 F. Remove stems. Cut a lengthwise slit down the center of each eggplant; do not cut in half. Pry open to expose inner flesh. Salt each to taste, then brush all over with olive oil. Place in a lightly oiled pan and roast until soft, about 20 minutes. Meanwhile, sauté onions and garlic in oil until soft. Add parsley, oregano, tomatoes, salt, pepper, and sugar. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes. Remove eggplants from oven and spoon sauce into each slit. Pour remaining sauce around eggplants. Swirl olive oil over all and continue baking until eggplants are very soft and a bit charred, about 30 to 40 minutes. Serve with crusty bread, a green salad, and a side of sliced feta cheese. Serves six.
For more recipes to cook on a boat, click here.