Saturday, August 22, 2009

Bouranee Baunjan with Yogurt Sauce

I have to credit my love for ethnic cuisine and thus the origin of my love for cooking to the infamous Kabul Afghan Restaurant in Madison, WI. It was there that I began my food service career (well maybe not so much a career than a way to save up for my 6 months of adventures in France), and where I began to realize that what happens in the best of kitchens is nothing short of magic. So much was new, mysterious and delicious - the endless discoveries of flavors and seemingly oddly-paired foods sparked my enthousiasm for all things edible: What's with Quabouli - raisins in tomato sauce?! And how does Ashak taste so good - it's "just" a dumpling filled with green onions? Yogurt with garlic and mint?! Cardamom in...everything? My vocabluary grew, that is certain. And my quest for unusual delicious tastes sparked a need to replicate them at home.

One dish that particularly suprised and delighted me was Burani, a less popular appetizer served at the restaurant. Fried eggplant is topped with either a ground meat or green bean sauce and finished off with a drizzle of yogurt. Eggplant in general is a grossly underestimated and often misunderstood vegetable. Many view it as tasteless, too finicky to cook with, a mere absorbant of surrounding flavors or a good stand-in for mush when you need a decent dip to nosh. I think it is subtly flavored and holds a distinct integrity when prepared with simplicity and paired with other foods that sport their own distinctly simple flavors.

As it is summer and eggplant is clearly plotting a takeover of vegetable stands at just about every farmers market until buyers give it a fair chance to be present and truly shine in that perfect dish, I sought out the recipe for "Burani" to replicate chez moi. What I wanted was to make a classic, traditional dish using a method seldom employed in my kitchen...following a recipe with no fills, no adaptations, no monkey-ing around. I was romanced by the idea of shelving all the risks and thrills of creativity for one night to have some Afghan comfort food.

As linguistically skilled as I am, arabic/farsi is not a strong point for me. I did not realize that there would be several spellings, versions, and regional differences in this dish - from burani, bouranee, or borrani to banjan, badinjan, and baunjan, all with some kind of tomato sauce going on over fried eggplant. After hours of reading, reviewing and postulating which would most resemble the restaurant's version, I abandoned my search for the exact same recipe and admitted to my true motivation behind wanting this particular dish. Nostalgia. I miss Madison, I miss eating for free, I miss under-reporting cash tips. But a healthy supply of eggplant remained as did my craving for Afghan food, so I decided on a very simple recipe.

I was skeptical of this dish at first because of it's lack of flare and fuss. From what I knew of Afghan food, secret spice combinations had to be toasted, ground together and simmered under for hours with other miscellaneous co-conspirators to produce something so delicious that it's near-intoxicating, throwing you into a hypnotic trance that makes you go something like, "Mmmm, ooooo, ohh, mmmmmy god, ohh..." as you sort of rock back and forth. Bill Murray in "What About Bob" style. This recipe did not appear to possess these voodoo properties, but after picking up that bouranee baunjan is a comfort food of sorts in Afghanistan and because I was a bit suspicious of its simplicity, I felt it necessary to follow the recipe at least once to see for myself if it rouses the same sentiment that mac and cheese might for an American.

After oscillating bite after bite in a deep internal debate over whether I should devour or savor this dish, I was even more suspicious because of the mildly euphoric hypnosis I experienced. There is really only one spice playing a somewhat secondary role and I couldn't grasp how this dish came to own a part of my soul after eating it. Did it evoke the same mac and cheese warmth and love of all things you can remember from childhood? Well, it may not inspire the exact same feelings but it may become a staple and over time come to remind the humble chef that sometimes all it takes is a little salt and pepper.

I've made this several times and it never ceases to please, and that is putting it very lightly. I usually pair it with a jazzed up protein like cumin-crusted tofu (once perfected the recipe will come shortly thereafter) and a tasty rice pilaf. While it simmers, it needs very littler supervision. The aubergine mystique develops all on its own.

Bouranee Baunjan with Yogurt

1 c. Plain soy yogurt
2-3 tsp. Garlic, minced
1/4 c. mint or cilantro (optional)
1 T. Fresh lemon juice

1 Large eggplant, cut into 1/4 - 1/2 inch slices
2 T. Oil, divided
2 Medium tomatoes, sliced
1 Onion, sliced
2 Green bell peppers, sliced
Pinch of cayenne pepper (to taste)
1/2-1 c. Water

1. For the yogurt, combine ingredients first 4 ingredients in food processor. Season with salt to taste
2. Salt eggplant slices and let sweat 15-30 minutes.
3. Heat oil in pan and fry eggplant slices, 2-3 minutes per side. Remove and set aside
4. In same pan, cook onions until browned and tender ~7 minutes. Remove and set aside.
5. Add eggplant to pan in one layer and top with a layer of onions, layer of green peppers and finally the tomato slices. Add a generous pinch of cayenne and 1/2 cup of water. Let simmer~10 minutes. Check after 5 minutes and add more water if necessary.
6. Serve taking care to get each layer arranged on plate and top with dollop of yogurt.

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