There was a time, not so long ago—the 1970s, in fact—when, outside of immigrant Italian households, cooking with fresh garlic in much of Canada was just about unheard of. It’s hard to imagine that now, since produce aisles are laden with every manner of exotic fruit and veg, from almost every imaginable place on the globe. And, sure, choice and variety are great, but all that shipping is bad for the planet and bad for local growers. So, in response to our growing curiosity and diversifying population, the Vineland Research and Innovation Centre in Vineland Station, Ontario, is developing new and exciting varieties so Canadian farmers can satisfy multicultural shoppers—right here at home. And, with much recent immigration coming from Southeast Asia, Vineland responded by developing strains of long and small eggplant and okra that both thrive in our cooler climate and suit Asian cooking styles and recipes.
Serves 5 as a main or 10 as a starter
Eggplants come in many sizes, shapes and colours. The taste doesn’t vary wildly, but the smaller varieties tend to have more tender skins, and that means it’s all edible and great for adding to stews and curries. Here, we used long and skinny Asian eggplants for an elegant look, but any eggplant will do. Figs give a wonderful crunch and a hint of natural sweetness to this dish. The recipe calls for dried figs, but if fresh are available, grab a few of those to roast alongside the eggplant. If za’atar is unavailable, substitute with dried thyme.
10 small eggplants
2 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp butter
1 small red onion, finely chopped
2 lb groundgrass-fed lamb or mutton1 jalapeno pepper, seeded, finely chopped1/2 cup finely chopped dried figs
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp cumin
1 1/2 tsp sea salt, divided 1 1/2 tsp pepper, divided1 tbsp za’atar; if using dried thyme instead, reduce to 1 tsp
1/3 cup chopped fresh mint leaves, stems discarded; reserve some of the smallest and most perfect leaves for a final garnish
2 cups plain full-fat yogurt; goat is more traditional, but any yogurt is fine1/2 tsp sumac (optional) + pinch for garnish
Preheat oven to 400°F.
Lightly oil or spray an ovenproof dish big enough to hold all the eggplant halves.
Wash and cut eggplants in half lengthwise, leaving the little stem caps on. Scrape out innermost, seedy-pulp part of eggplants. Reserve and chop finely; set aside.
Arrange hollowed-out eggplant halves in oiled baking dish; set aside.
In skillet over medium heat, add oil, butter, onion, lamb, jalapeno, eggplant, figs, garlic, cumin, 1 tsp of the salt, 1 tsp of the pepper, and za’atar, stirring often and breaking up any lumps of lamb. Keep stirring and cook until lamb is just beginning to brown and onions are softening, about 5 minutes. The chopped eggplant will absorb the fat.
Scoop the lamb filling into the eggplant “boats” and roast until eggplants have sagged and softened a little, about 20 to 25 minutes. Don’t overcook or boats will fall apart.
While eggplants are roasting, make the Mint Yogurt.
In bowl, whisk together chopped mint, yogurt, remaining salt and pepper, and sumac (if using).
To serve, garnish the cooked eggplant with fresh mint leaves and offer the Mint Yogurt on the side or drizzled over the eggplants.
TIP The smaller bowl end of a melon baller or serrated grapefruit spoon works well to scrape out the eggplants.
From Hudson, Quebec, now living in Port Hope, Ontario, Signe is a restaurant chef-turned-writer who tells award-winning stories and creates delicious recipes for such publications as: LCBO’s Food & Drink, Manna Pro Hearty Homestead, The Harvest Commission, and Today’s Parent; she published her first book – Happy Hens & Fresh Eggs; Keeping Chickens in the Kitchen Garden with 100 Recipes – in 2015. She studied Fine Art History and Humanities at the University of Toronto, and York University; she graduated with honours from OCAD University; she earned her Wine Specialist Certificate from George Brown College.