Yes, I said Persian-Italian. Bear with me here for a second. I was looking for some sort of moist eggplant dish to serve with Persian rice (a wonderful basmati pilaf with a crunchy crust; I’ll tell you about that soon). I came across several recipes for a Persian dish named Fesenjan-e Bademjan, which is eggplant braised in a sauce of walnuts, pomegranate, and honey.
This sounded amazing, but I had two problems: I had no pomegranate molasses in the house, and I can’t serve walnuts. I scanned my pantry for something that might replace the pomegranate, and hit upon mosto cotto (aka saba), which is the cooked grape must that would become balsamic vinegar if it was aged.
Mosto cotto is fruity, sweet and sour in a way very comparable to the pomegranate molasses. So I decided to roll with it and reimagine the dish as if it were cooked by a Persian traveling on a trade route through Italy in the 10th century. (I have an active imagination). The sweet / sour / spiced flavors seem almost medieval.
As for the walnuts, I figured that their main purpose was to thicken and enrich the sauce. I substituted roasted, unsweetened sunflower seed butter. But if you have walnut butter or can toast and grind whole ones, I’m sure that would be great.
You’ll notice I don’t salt and drain the eggplants. Some people feel this is essential to remove bitterness. To me, it just makes them wet so they don’t brown well. I don’t find them particularly bitter.
Persian-Italian Eggplant Stew
Vegetarian, vegan (if you replace the honey with say agave nectar), and gluten-free
- 3 medium or 2 large eggplant (I used normal Western style eggplants)
- 1/2 cup olive oil
- 1 onion, finely diced
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 teaspoons ground cumin
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1/2 teaspoon cayenne (or to taste)
- several grinds fresh black pepper
- 2 tablespoons mosto cotto (saba)
- 2 tablespoons honey (replace if you want vegan)
- 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
- 2 tablespoons roasted, unsweeted sunflower butter (or see above)
- 2 cups water
- handful parsley leaves
- 2 teaspoons sumac powder
- Trim the eggplants and cut them in quarters, lengthwise. In a large skillet, heat the oil over a medium high-flame. Fry the eggplant on all sides until well seared and golden brown. Remove to paper towels and season with salt.
- Leaving the remaining oil in the pan, reduce the heat to medium and fry the onion and garlic for 3 minutes. Add the cumin, cinnamon, cayenne and black pepper and cook for one more minute. Add the mosto cotto, honey, red wine vinegar, and sunflower butter and water. The sunflower butter will be a lump at first, but once it heats up you can whisk it in easily.
- Simmer for a few minutes and then season with salt as needed. Cut the cooled eggplant into bite sized pieces and add back to the sauce. Reduce heat to a bare simmer. Cook until the eggplant is fully tender and the sauce thickened, about 10 minutes.
- Taste and adjust seasoning, adding more salt, pepper, cayenne, or vinegar as needed to achieve a complex mixture of spices, sweet, and sour.
- Garnish with parsley leaves and sumac and serve.