Eggplant with Pomegranate Syrup
Serves 4-6 as an appetizer
Our friend, Margaret, was describing an eggplant appetizer that her Lebanese family makes, and amazingly, it didn’t sound that different from our family’s caponata—a delicious mixture of cooked eggplant, celery, onions, tomatoes, and raisins, and perfect with a crusty loaf of bread. Both Italy and Lebanon have Mediterranean coasts but people often forget that both fall under the “Mediterranean cuisine” category. The food in this region varies quite a bit, but there’s a ton of common ground, too. The wonderful flavors and spices particular to each country, town, and village are responsible for creating various versions of what turn out to be very similar dishes when you take a closer look. But each place knows how to make it uniquely its own.
Margaret, for example, told us that the wonderful tangy flavor in so many Lebanese sauces and dressings comes from something we’d never have guessed—pomegranate syrup, something totally foreign to us, but a staple in her kitchen. “It’s sweet but not too sweet and it’s tart.” she said.
And just like that, we’d learned one of the hidden flavor secrets (one of those flavors in a foreign cuisine that you can never quite put your finger on because you literally have no idea that the ingredient responsible exists) of Lebanese cuisine. To get a bottle for ourselves, we tagged along on Margaret’s next trip to a Middle Eastern grocer.
The flavor was incredible. Totally unexpected and not nearly as sweet as you might imagine. There were so many things we were eager to try it in, but really, it’s hard to get much better than an eggplant dish in our book, so we went right for the one Margaret had mentioned. Using ingredients similar to her recipe, we recreated the dish. And it’s just so good. With enough evenings of holiday entertaining, weekend family visits, and delicious meals ahead, you’ll need at least one or two new tricks to add to your bag. You’re going to want to bookmark this one.
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This is really simple to make and comes together very quickly. When purchasing pomegranate syrup look for one without colors or preservatives. If you don’t have pomegranate syrup, use a balsamic reduction (see our Seared Figs with Balsamic Reduction post). The fruity flavor isn’t quite the same but the consistency is similar and it will still be delicious. And speaking of fruity… Did you know that eggplants are technically a fruit? Use smaller eggplants, the skin and flesh will be most tender. Liberally salting them after slicing helps rid them of some of their moisture, which makes them perfect for frying or sautéing. Be sure to quickly rinse off the salt (don’t worry, you won’t undo what you’ve just done) and then dry them well. Blot the slices and give them a gentle squeeze between paper towels. This will actually help to reduce the amount of oil the eggplant absorbs during cooking, too.
– Olive oil, about 3 tbs—more as needed
– 6 small eggplants, washed, top and bottom trimmed, sliced about 1/4″ thick
– 1/2 large red onion, thinly sliced
– Sprinkle of golden raisins, about 2 tbs
– 2 tbs pomegranate syrup
– 1/4 cup walnuts, roughly chopped—make sure there are no shell fragments
– 1 tbs lemon juice
– 1 tsp honey
– 1/4 cup hot water
– Fresh mint, about 1/4 cup
– Course salt
* Place the eggplant slices in a colander, then either put it the sink or on plate. Sprinkle the slices with course salt and let them sit for about 30 minutes.
* In the meantime, place a 12″ sauté pan over medium heat.
* When hot, add the walnuts to toast. Watch them carefully—they’ll burn before you know it. When you can smell them and they’ve got a nice toasty color, set them aside in a bowl.
* After 30 minutes or so, rinse the eggplant and pat dry. Set them on paper towels.
* Place the pan back on the stove over medium heat.
* When the pan is hot, add the olive oil and let it warm up until it shimmers.
* Sauté several slices of eggplant a time (don’t crowd the pan) until browned.
* As the slices are done, remove them to a plate lined with paper towels. Add more oil to the pan as needed for the remaining slices.
* When all the eggplant has been cooked, add the onion to the pan and sauté until soft.
* Reduce the heat to med-low, add the eggplant, toasted walnuts, pomegranate syrup, lemon juice, honey, and the 1/4 cup of hot water.
* Mix until everything is blended together.
* Taste for seasoning and add salt and pepper to taste. Turn off the heat.
* Roughly chop or tear the mint and add it to the pan. Mix.