This dish is inspired by two rice dishes: pilaf and maqluba. In a pilaf, the rice is sauteed to lightly toast the grains and then steamed in a flavorful broth, along with aromatics such as onion, garlic and spices such as cumin and coriander. When ready to serve, the rice is fluffed to separate the grains and prevent stickiness. Handfuls of fresh herbs and chopped nuts, such as almonds, pine nuts or pistachios, are often added for fresh flavor and texture.
Maqluba is a Levantine upside-down specialty. It’s a layered construction of braised vegetables, such as onion, eggplant and tomato, and meat, such as lamb or chicken. A spice-infused stock and rice top it off, and the dish then slowly cooks, undisturbed, on the stovetop or in the oven. When ready, it’s inverted on a plate, revealing a crown of caramelized vegetables and roasted meat on a throne of flavorful rice. It’s a wondrous one-pot comfort food meal.
This recipe takes inspiration from both methods while leaning toward the ease of making a pilaf. While it may lack the wow factor of an upside-down presentation, the flavor is just as satisfying, derived from braising the vegetables and adding a generous amount of spice and fresh herbs. The rice is simply stirred in with the vegetables and lightly toasted (like a pilaf) before simmering in a flavorful stock until tender.
This recipe makes for a light meal or side dish. Serve it with grilled meats and fish or a roasted chicken. Alternatively, sprinkle crumbled feta cheese over the top for a vegetarian option.
There are a few tips to heed for this dish: Roast the eggplant in the oven first. This ensures a golden-brown exterior without adding an overabundance of oil to the dish. And make sure you cook the onions until they are soft and golden. They will be sweet and wonderfully sludgy in the pilaf.
Mediterranean Pilaf With Eggplant and Tomato
Yield: Serves 4
- 1 medium eggplant, cut into 3/4-inch chunks
- Extra-virgin olive oil
- Kosher salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 1 medium onion, halved, thinly sliced
- 2 red bell peppers, seeded, cut in large dice
- 1 cup grape or cherry tomatoes, halved
- 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
- 1 cup basmati rice
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
- 1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
- 1 1/2 cups chicken stock or water (or a mix of each)
- 1/4 cup chopped parsley leaves and tender stems
1. Heat the oven to 400 degrees.
2. Place the eggplant in a bowl. Drizzle with 3 tablespoons oil and season with salt and black pepper. Spread on a baking sheet and roast in the oven until tender and golden brown, 20 to 25 minutes, stirring once or twice.
3. Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a deep skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and cook until golden and soft, 5 to 6 minutes, stirring often. Add the bell peppers, tomatoes and garlic and saute until the peppers are crisp-tender, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the rice, oregano, thyme and red pepper flakes. Stir to coat and lightly toast the rice, about 30 seconds. Add the stock, 1 teaspoon kosher salt and 1/2 teaspoon black pepper.
4. Cover the skillet and cook until the rice is tender and the liquid is absorbed, about 20 minutes. Stir in the eggplant and parsley. Taste for seasoning. Serve warm.
Lynda Balslev is an award-winning food and wine writer, cookbook author and recipe developer. She also authors the blog TasteFood, a compilation of more than 600 original recipes, photos and stories. More recipes can be found at chicago.suntimes.com/taste.