How Eggplant is Celebrated in Middle Eastern Dishes: Palestinian M’Nazaleh
By: Blanche Shaheen/Arab America Contributing Writer
Whether mashed in a Baba Ghanoush dip or layered in casseroles, eggplant takes center stage in many popular Middle Eastern and Mediterranean dishes. However, eggplant is generally overlooked by the western world, perhaps because many people don’t know how to prepare this intimidating-looking vegetable. Some people resist eggplant because they think the vegetable is bitter, but there is a tried and true method to cook eggplant successfully. This success begins in the grocery store or farmer’s market.
When shopping for eggplant, choose those that feel heavy with smooth, taut, unblemished skin and fresh, plump green stalks. “Male” eggplants have a tiny symmetrical circle on the bottom, and those tend to be sweeter with smaller seeds. The key to perfectly roasted or grilled eggplant is to let the vegetable “sweat” out the acidity, which removes the bitterness from the seeds, tenderizes the flesh, and ensures that the eggplant absorbs less oil during cooking.
This preparation is worth the extra time, as properly cooked eggplant is rich and delicate, with a silky almost creamy mouthfeel. Eggplant also makes a nutritious replacement for meat in dishes, as it’s rich in: vitamin B1, copper, manganese, vitamin B6, niacin, potassium, folate, and vitamin K.
One popular preparation of eggplant among Palestinians is M’Nazaleh, a casserole of eggplant with a filling of either chicken or lamb. This dish is similar to Greek Moussaka, except the Palestinian version uses tomato sauce instead of bechamel, or rich white sauce. The recipe below provides instructions on using store bought marinara sauce, which quickens the cooking time for busy people on the go and does not compromise on flavor or quality (especially if you use a good quality organic marinara sauce.)
This dish tastes great alone as a low carb meal, or with any variety of rice for a heartier alternative. To see the lamb version of this dish, and how it can be prepared ahead for a busy work day, click on the video below:
M’nazaleh Casserole (Eggplant Casserole with Lamb or Chicken)
- 1 ½ pounds of cubed or ground lamb or cubed cut chicken thighs
- 1 large onion, chopped finely
- 2 tsp allspice
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 4 cloves of garlic, minced
- 1 jar of standard marinara sauce
- Olive oil
- 1/3 cup pine nuts
- Salt both sides of the eggplant slices, and then set aside for about 30 minutes on a baking sheet lined with paper towels. While the salt extracts the water from the eggplant, in a large skillet sauté onions in about 3 tbsp of olive oil for about 5 minutes. Add garlic and sauté another minute. Add the meat, allspice, salt, and pepper to taste, and sauté until browned. Layer a 13×7 baking dish with the meat mixture and set aside. Next, take the eggplant slices and squeeze out any excess moisture with paper towels or a thin towel. Brush the eggplant slices with olive oil on both sides. Broil the eggplant in the oven for about 8 minutes each side, or until nicely browned. Take half of the roasted eggplant and layer the slices into the baking dish. Add the meat filling on top and spread evenly. Place another layer of eggplant slices on top of the meat filling. Spread the marinara sauce over the top/ . Bake the casserole in the oven at 375 degrees for about 30 minutes. While the m’nazaleh is baking, sauté pine nuts in about 1 tsp of olive oil until browned. Top the m’nazeleh with pine nuts before serving.
Blanche Shaheen is the author of the cookbook called “Feast In the Middle East, a Journey of Family and Cuisine” which you can order here: https://secure.mybookorders.com/mbo_index.php?isbn=9781545675113 She is also a journalist, and host of the popular cooking show called Feast in the Middle East. She specializes in Arab cuisine of the Levant and beyond. You can check out her cooking video tutorials at https://www.youtube.com/user/blanchetv Her recipes can also be found at: https://feastinthemiddleeast.wordpress.com/