North African Bulghar Stuffed Eggplant
Every time that I see baby eggplant in the grocery store, I feel compelled to buy them. Every time. This isn’t such a bad thing, considering that the baby eggplant are my favorite variety (yes, trumping even long, slender Asian eggplant) with their tender, sweet, baby-like flesh. They’re as lovely as anything with that thin, jewel toned skin, and can vegetables get any more twee? I swear, they’re like the veal of the vegetable world, possibly eclipsed only by baby zucchini or miniature pattypan squash. Eating them makes me feel like the Jolly Green Giant, but in a daunting, powerful way. Because, you know, eating baby vegetables makes me dangerous.
I threatened promised Mike ages ago that we would start eating more vegetarian meals, and although we still eat more meat than I would like, we usually have at least one or two vegetarian or vegan entrees per week. Which…which doesn’t sound like anything to be proud of, now that I think about it. Good news! MORE vegan entrees will be in the works soon! Update: I wish you could have seen Mike shudder as he read that. Awesome.
For added incentive, I just realized that pretty soon I’m going to have to start putting deposits down and buying wedding stuff, such as bonbonnières, center pieces, maybe a dress. When I start costing it out, between the bulghar and the other pantry staples, this dish works out to about $8 in total, or slightly less than $2 each. I have NO complaints about that.
Bulghar Stuffed Eggplant
- 6 baby finger eggplant (~4″ long) *
- 1/2 cup coarse bulghar **
- 1.5 cups boiling hot water, salted
- 3 tbsp olive oil, divided
- 1 small yellow onion
- 6 cloves garlic
- 1 medium can (16 oz/400g) diced tomatoes
- 2 tsp honey
- 1/2 tsp cumin
- 1/2 tsp cinnamon
- 1/4 tsp ground allspice
- 1/4 tsp red pepper flakes
- 1/2 cup pine nuts
- small bunch fresh mint (1/2 cup chopped)
- handful fresh parsley (1/2 cup chopped)
- 1/2 lemon, juice only
- salt and pepper
*Baby eggplant (sometimes called brinjal) can be either rotund or elongated. The elongated eggplant are sometimes referred to as “finger” eggplant, and they are your best choice for this recipe…if only because they are usually somewhat larger and easier to stuff.
** Bulghar (also known as bulgar, bulgur, burgal or burghal) is parboiled and dried durum wheat grains. The most common bulghar is either fine or coarsely ground. Fine ground is what you would want to use for tabbouleh, but coarse ground is better for stuffing or hearty salads. A quick not for cooking is that bulghar used to be made from ‘summer’ or ‘winter’ wheat. The summer wheat, which is commonly sold in North American grocery stores, refers to a light grain which was parboiled and needs only a sweep through the liquid for hydration before it is drained. Tougher, darker winter wheat has a lower protein content and generally needs more cooking time. In fact, bulghar from winter wheat can sometimes need up to 30 minutes of boiling time! Because of this variation, read the package directions on the bulghar that you have bought. If it needs to be boiled, boil it and ignore the soaking instructions. If there are no directions, follow my lead…..
Preheat the oven to 375ºF.
Cut each baby eggplant in half, keeping the stem end intact and going straight to the tail tip. Use one tablespoon of oil to brush liberally over the eggplants, both front and back, before laying them cut side up on a baking sheet. Tuck the oiled eggplant halves in the oven for approximately 20 minutes, or until the flesh is soft and easily pierced with a fork but the bodies have not collapsed.
While the eggplant are baking up, it’s a perfect time to toast the pine nuts. Spread the nuts out on an ungreased baking sheet in a single layer. Tuck them in the oven for 3-5 minutes, shaking the pan halfway through. When the pine nuts are mostly golden brown (some may be darker and that is absolutely okay) they are toasted and ready. Shake the nuts off the pan and into a bowl so that they do not continue cooking with the ambient heat.
Cooking the bulghar is as easy as can be. Put it into a heatproof container and pour the boiling water over top. Sprinkle liberally with salt (about 1/2 tsp) and let it stand for 15 minutes. The grain will start to soak up that hot, salty water and rehydrate, becoming tender and fluffy. You could let the bulghar soak for as long as 30 minutes, but I like to drain it after 15 so that it is still a touch al dente. After all, when the bulghar is added to the tomato mixture and baked it will continue to soak up moisture so it shouldn’t be mushily soft.
When the bulghar is tender but still toothsome, you will want to drain off all of the water, give it a good shake dry, and then squeeze it in your hands to remove absolutely every last drop of water that you can coax out. The drained bulghar can be set off to the side until you’re ready for it. Ah, but I’m getting ahead of myself….
The nuts are toasted, the eggplant is baking, and the bulghar is soaking. Life is pretty good.
Chop the onions into a small, thin mince and finely mince the garlic. Put the aromatics in a large saucepan, along with the remaining two tablespoons of oil, and set it over medium heat. Starting the onions and garlic off in a cold pan will encourage them to deepen and sweeten without as much risk of burning.
After 5-7 minutes when the onions are a pale gold color add the diced tomatoes, honey and dried spices. Okay, so I totally didn’t use diced tomatoes here. I used whole canned tomatoes, because I love to squish them into a pulp in my hands before adding them to the pan. We all have our quirky little habits, and that just happens to be one of mine. Give this a stir and turn the heat down slightly to medium low. You will need to cook the tomato mixture for at least 7-10 minutes, stirring fairly regularly, or until the liquid has reduced significantly in the pan.
Are the eggplants soft? As soon as they are cool enough to handle, use a small paring knife to score all around the edges of the eggplant, leaving a skin which is about 1/4″ thick. Carefully scoop out the flesh (I like to use a melon-baller to do this) which needs to be given a good chop.
When the tomato mixture has thickened enough that you can run a spoon through it and still see the bottom of the pan 5 seconds later, add the chopped eggplant flesh and stir it through. Let this cook for a minute or two so that the flavors can combine.
Finely chop the mint and parsley leaves. There should be slightly more mint than parsley, but be generous with both. Reserve one tablespoon of the chopped herbs to use as garnish.
Take the pan off the heat before adding the bulghar (which has been drained and squeezed dry) to the tomatoes, along with the pine nuts, mint and parsley. Stir everything together, squeeze in the juice of 1/2 lemon, and season quite generously with salt and pepper. You can’t afford to be shy with the seasoning in a bulghar dish.
Spoon the stuffing into your gutted eggplant halves, pressing it together and really mounding it in. Your cupped palm is the best tool that you could have to keep the mixture in a pseudo-dome shape as you press it into the shells.
Bake the eggplant for 15-20 minutes, or until they are warmed through and the tops are just starting to brown. Sprinkle the eggplant with your reserved chopped parsley and mint, and serve with a bowl of black olives and some fresh pita bread on the side.
The sultry cinnamon and allspice, combined with smoky nutmeg and just a mere whiff of heat from the chili are enough to elevate a simple bulghar and tomato stuffing into the realm of the exotic in a non-intimidating way.
Light, clean, healthy and vegetarian dinners are always easier than I expect. In fact, I’m rather looking forward to putting the chicken breasts aside again a few days from now.