This recipe for meatball stuffed aubergine bundles in verjuice sauce combines two of my favourite ingredients, the humble aubergine (eggplant) and the very special verjuice. I know this second ingredient sounds unfamiliar to many but bear with me. I’ll tell you all about it soon. You may wonder where this quaint ingredient had been all your life when you taste this dish. But not to worry if you can’t find or make it. There are substitutes you can use.
The idea for making these tasty bundles comes from Turkish cuisine where a similar dish is called islim kebab. The Turkish and Persian cuisines have been borrowing from each other for centuries so our cuisines have a lot in common. The least is names. So you get Persian dishes with Turkish names such as dolmeh from dolma (stuffed leaves or veg) and Turkish dishes with Persian names such as pilaw from polo (cooked rice), kebab from kabab (cooked or grilled meat) and kofte from koofteh (pounded meat).
Making aubergine bundles has become quite popular with Persian cooks in the past two decades. The dish has all the flavours and flair that Persians adore in food. In most Persian versions the use of verjuice to flavour the sauce gives the dish Persian character, that sour flavour we so love. Islim kebab already has a Persian name, boghcheh-ye bademjoon “aubergine bundles”, and seems to be a dish that has, or will, naturalise in the cuisine of Iran.
People who have grapevines around them can make verjuice very easily at home. There, I let the bird out! Verjuice comes from grapes, unripe tart green grapes. Perhaps getting to know this fabulous ingredient will let you use the grapes from that lovely vine you planted a few years ago, the vine that bears lots of lovely bunches of grapes refusing to ripen in that not so sunny spot of the garden.
Verjuice is extensively used in Persian and Syrian cuisines to flavour stews, sauces, salads and even soups. But it’s not only a Middle Eastern ingredient. A Roman recipe from 71 AD refers to verjuice and it used to be a common ingredient in medieval English kitchens too. Surprising, right?
In Iran verjuice is made by two methods: Pressing the grapes and letting the juice develop its distinctive acidic flavour in bottles with a little help from the warmth and light of the sun, or by cooking the juice briefly before bottling it. Either way the juice develops a lovely brownish-red colour and mellower flavour.
But what if you don’t have or can’t find verjuice for your verjuice sauce? I find that gooseberries (fresh or frozen) do the job quite decently. Blend a few handfuls of chopped gooseberries with a pinch of salt and put the pulp in a sieve over a bowl. Let the juices drain. Bring the juice to a boil and let cool. Use with some caution. Gooseberries can be very tart so it’s best to add the juice to a dish gradually and taste for sourness. Any remaining juice can be frozen in ice-cube trays for future use.
Now a few words about aubergines or eggplants as they are called in America and the meat for the meatballs. Aubergines come in many shapes and sizes, even colours. To make these bundles you need long and rather slim aubergines. For the meatballs you can use beef, lamb, a mixture of the two or even minced chicken or turkey. I used beef.
The key to best flavour in this dish is slow-cooking as it helps blend flavours and mellow the verjuice sauce. Arrange your aubergine bundles in a shallow pan and simmer very gently on the smallest burner for best results.
For the bundles:
- 3 long aubergines, sliced lengthways (3-4 mm thick)
- Olive oil or vegetable oil for frying aubergines and meatballs
- 200g minced lean beef or lamb
- 1 medium onion, grated or finely chopped
- 1/2 tsp ground cumin
- 1/4 tsp black pepper
- Pinch of chilli powder
- 1/2 tsp turmeric
- 1/2 tsp garlic powder
For the sauce:
- 1 medium onion, finely chopped
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 1/2 tsp turmeric
- 3-4 tbsp tomato puree
- 50ml verjuice
- 300ml boiling water
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1/4 tsp black pepper
- A handful of cherry tomatoes
- Brush the bottom of a large nonstick lidded frying pan with oil and put on medium heat. Arrange the aubergine slices in the frying pan in single layer. Sprinkle with salt and add two tablespoons of water. Cover the pan and cook until the water is absorbed and the slices are golden brown on the underside. Gently turn and cook, uncovered, for a few minutes until lightly browned on the other side. Repeat with the rest of the slices. Set aside.
- Mix the mince with the spices, salt and the grated onion and shape into walnut-sized meatballs. Use a tablespoon of oil to fry the meatballs until browned.
- Lay two slices of aubergine on a board in the shape of a cross. Put a meatball in the centre of each cross and bring the flaps over the meatball to form a bundle. Secure with a wooden toothpick. Repeat until all the slices are used up.
- Heat the oil for the sauce in a lidded frying pan big enough to hold all the bundles rather snuggly. Cook the chopped onions on medium-low until golden brown. Add the turmeric and tomato puree and continue cooking for a minute or two. Add the water, verjuice, salt and pepper and bring to the boil. Arrange the bundles and any extra meatballs you may have in the sauce with the tomatoes. Lower the heat and gently simmer for about 45 minutes until the sauce has thickened a little and the meatballs are cooked through. Adjust the seasoning and add a pinch of sugar to the sauce if it’s too sour. Enjoy with rice for a main course or on its own as an appetiser.