Eggplant in Tomato Sauce – Old World Vs. New World

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In Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisines there is a tradition of opening a meal with an assortment of dishes in small plates scattered on the table. In the Middle East it is called Mezze. In Spain they call it Tapas. If you are a little bit familiar with the concept, you probably know that there is a huge selection of dishes that can be served as part of a Mezze, depending on the country and local traditions. Obviously, they are not all served at the same time, which makes the Mezze part of the meal interesting and slightly different every time.

This eggplant dish may be part of a Mezze. I know there are different variations on this dish (the most known to Americans is probably the Italian Caponata), but my first version (out of the two presented here) is the one I learned from my mother and my grandmother. To me, this dish is comfort food. As simple as it is, eggplant in tomato sauce is one of the dishes that make me homesick.

This dish is a great example of how I keep the spirit of an old world dish, while taking a shortcut to match it to my busy Western life. As I mentioned above, this post includes the two versions of the dish. The result is pretty similar, although it’s hard to beat the original recipe.

Eggplant in Tomato Sauce – original version

Ingredients:
1 large eggplant, sliced into 3/8 inch (1 cm) wide rings
Kosher salt
Oil for frying
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons tomato paste
½ – 1 cup water
3 cloves garlic
Salt and pepper
½ teaspoon sugar (optional)

Preparation:
Sprinkle the sliced eggplants with kosher salt on both sides. Place in a colander with a plate underneath and set aside for 30 minutes, to extract the liquids out of the eggplant. Then hold 2-3 slices at a time, facing each other, and gently squeeze them between the palms of your hands, to get more of the liquids out. Be careful not to break the slices while squeezing.

Most people think that the reason for salting the eggplant is to get the bitterness out, which may be true for some eggplants (not all of them are bitter). The main reason, though, is that after salting and squeezing the eggplant, it absorbs much less oil when frying, and it tastes better from the salt.

You may skip the whole salting/squeezing part if you have no time or patience, but know that you will end up with eggplant soaked with oil.

Heat the oil (about ¼ inch high) in a large casserole. When oil is hot, place the squeezed slices of eggplant in it in one layer. You will probably need to make 2-3 batches.

eggplant-frying

Fry the eggplant on one side until it starts browning, about 1 minute. Flip to the other side and do the same. Remove the slices from the pan and place them on a plate covered with paper towel.

When you are done frying all the slices, set the eggplant aside. Discard of the oil in the pan, except for 2-3 tablespoon (you kind of have to eye it).

Return the pot to the stove, add the onion and saute it for one minute. Add the tomato sauce and stir it in quickly and constantly for 30 seconds, so that it doesn’t burn. Add the water, garlic and spices. Mix well to dissolve the tomato paste in the water and cook, covered, on medium low heat, for 5 minutes.

Immerse the eggplant slices in the tomato sauce, one by one. Once all slices are in the pot, shake the pot a little and twirl it to get the sauce all around the eggplants.

Cover the pot and cook covered for 15 minutes.

eggplant-ready

This dish may be served hot, cold, or at room temperature. Serve it as a Mezze, side dish, in a sandwich, or even as pasta sauce.

And now, here is my version to this wonderful dish:

Eggplant in Tomato Sauce – innovated version

Ingredients:
1 large eggplant, cut into ¾ inch cubes
3 tablespoons oil
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
7 medium tomatoes, pureed in a food processor
3 cloves garlic, sliced
½ teaspoon sugar (optional)
Salt and pepper

Preparation:
Preheat oven to 400F.

Cover a baking sheet with tin foil and spray with cooking oil spray. Spread the eggplant cubes on the baking sheet, sprinkle a little bit of salt on top, and spray the eggplant again with the oil.

eggplant-cubed

Bake in the preheated oven until the eggplant starts to brown and shrink, about 20-30 minutes.

In a large pot, heat 3 tablespoons of oil and saute the onion until golden.

Add the pureed tomatoes, the sliced garlic and the spices. Bring to a boil, cover the pot, lower the heat to medium low, and cook until the eggplants in the oven are ready.

Remove the eggplants from the oven, and add them to the pot with the tomato sauce. Give a stir, cover the pot and cook for 15 more minutes.

cubed-eggplant-cooked

I’ll let you be the judge as to which version is better. Let me know…

And have a great weekend!

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