Stewed Meatballs with Eggplant and Fruit

Stewed meatballs with eggplant and fruit, served with maftoul.
Stewed meatballs with eggplant and fruit, served with maftoul. The maftoul is covering the biggest piece of eggplant from the pot! Photo mine, May 2016.

Here is a recipe I made for my mother on Mother’s Day. It is similar to the Beef with Eggplant, Dates, and Apricots I made last month for the Pesach of Colors series, but recalls two other dishes from separate Sephardic traditions: the Balkan albondigas, or meatballs with eggplant, and lamb tagine with prunes, a traditional Moroccan-Sephardic meal for Jewish holidays. I kind of made up this recipe on the spot, but will almost certainly make it again. This dish is somewhat complex in terms of ingredients and preparation, so save it for special occasions – like Mother’s Day.

I served the stew with maftoul or moghrabiyyeh, commonly called Pearled Couscous, or ptitim in Israel. Though the preparation method common in Israel differs slightly from maftoul (it is a paste that is molded in Israel, and a coated couscous elsewhere), the product is essentially identical, despite some Israeli efforts to say otherwise. Maftoul/ptitim are delicious and will be the topic of an upcoming blog post.

Stewed Meatballs with Eggplants and Dried Fruit
Serves 6-8
 
Stew
2 medium eggplants, peeled and chopped into 1-inch chunks
salt, for preparing eggplant
Two medium onions, diced
Two cloves garlic, finely diced
1 1/2 tbsp table salt
1 tbsp sugar
1 1/2 tsps white pepper
1 tsp smoked paprika
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp turmeric
1 tsp thyme
1/2 tsp ground oregano
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
1 1/4 cups chopped dried dates
1 1/4 cups dried prunes, pitted and chopped
2 cups sweet red wine (yes, I used Manischewitz), split into 1/2 cup and 1 1/2 cup amounts
2 bay leaves
1/4 cup honey
2 tbsp fresh parsley, chopped
4 tbsp fresh cilantro, chopped
water
2-3 tbsp olive oil
Meatballs
2 lbs ground beef
3 eggs
3/4 cup matzah meal
1 tsp salt
1 tsp black pepper
1/4 tsp cinnamon
1. Place the eggplant pieces into a colander and salt heavily. Set aside for 30 minutes, during which time the eggplant will “sweat.” (This is oxalic acid escaping the eggplant, which means the pieces will be less bitter in the final product.) Afterwards, rinse the eggplant pieces and set aside.
2. Heat a wide, deep pan or Dutch oven. Add olive oil when the pan is hot – the amount should be enough to coat the bottom of the pan.
3. Add the onions and garlic and saute.
4. When the onions begin to soften, add the salt, sugar, paprika, pepper, turmeric, thyme, oregano, and nutmeg, and mix in thoroughly. Saute for another minute.
5. Add the dried dates and prunes and mix in thoroughly. Then, add 1/2 cup wine.
6. Saute until the dates have slightly softened, about three minutes.
7. Add the eggplant pieces, bay leaves, and honey, and mix in thoroughly. Add the remaining 1 1/2 cups of wine. Then, add enough water to cover the entire mixture by about 1.5cm/1/2 an inch – this should be between four and six cups of water.
8. Bring to a boil and simmer for 30-45 minutes.
9. Now is the time to make the meatballs. Mix all the ingredients for the meatballs in a large bowl, until the ingredients are thoroughly combined.
10. With your hands, use the mixture to make walnut sized balls (about 4-5cm/1 1/2 inches). You should be able to make 20-25 meatballs.
11. When the eggplant has softened somewhat, add the meatballs and submerge in the mixture. Bring back to a boil, then simmer for another 30-45 minutes.
12. The eggplant will be very soft and the fruit completely mushy when the stew is done. Serve with your favorite carbohydrate.

Tu biShvat, Dates, and the Occupation

A pile of dates
Dates in a market in Spain. They are traditional for Tu BiShvat. Photo Hans Hillewaert/CC.

Greetings from a blizzard-bound New York! Though it is hard to think about green trees when this city is being given up to seventy centimeters of snow, Sunday night and Monday mark Tu biShvat, commonly called the “New Year for Trees.” The holiday originates in halakha (Jewish law): certain trees’ fruits cannot be eaten for the tree’s first three years of life. Those years are counted from Tu biShvat, thus it is the “New Year” for trees: Rosh Hashanah 2.0. As a New Year, it is a time of at least a little celebration. The Sephardic kabbalists of the medieval era developed a seder for the day, in which the seven species and other fruits of the soil are consumed and discussed. The theological component is that the ceremony and the holiday are an opportunity to strengthen the Etz Khayyim – the Tree of Life – the Kabbalistic metaphor for the nature of G-d and His/Her/Hir Creation. In modern times, however, the holiday has become increasingly associated with environmental causes – a sort of Jewish Arbor Day. Many foods are traditional for Tu BiShvat, but the “Seven Species” are the most common. These plants, identified in Deuteronomy 8, are those associated closely with the biblical land of Israel: wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, and dates.

My favorite is the humble date. Sweet and intense, sticky and nutty: the date is quite the fruit. So I am quite happy that the Tu biShvat tradition includes date consumption – plain, in muffins, in pilafs…eating a date becomes slightly sanctified. But buying a packet of dates is not always a holy act.

See, many of the dates sold in the United States and Europe – and especially those sold in areas with large Jewish populations – are marked as “grown in Israel,” but are actually sourced from illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Many of these farms are built on expropriated Palestinian land. Many use child labor. All of them benefit from an occupying régime that abuses the Palestinian population it de facto governs, limits their movements, and violates international law. So for those of us who oppose what is wrought in the West Bank and Gaza in our name as Jews, buying agricultural products from the settlements is  … problematic. Some folks, like myself, try our utmost to not buy them – not necessarily in terms of a boycott, more that…we do not want the current situation to continue. But in an environment when so many products in the Jewish world come from settlements, or you’re not sure where they come from – it’s not as easy as it seems. “Israeli” dates and other warm-weather fruits are particularly likely to come from these areas.

Some of you may be wondering: how can I avoid funneling my money into the Occupation? Let’s start with buying dates for Tu BiShvat (or anytime), since that is a temporally topical problem. Here’s how to find dates without financially supporting the theft of Palestinian land.

  1. The easiest/lazy option is to just simply not buy dates at all.
  2. Another option that is “easy” or “lazy” is to not buy “Israeli” dates at all. You can buy Californian dates, Tunisian dates, and Moroccan dates fairly easily across the United States. Note that these may not be certified as “kosher.”
  3. If you do wish to buy Israeli dates, or no others are available, I find that one trick that works is to check the city of the hashgacha, or kosher seal, on the package. (This requires some Hebrew and geography knowledge.) Kosher seals are usually geographically based, and certain ones tend to be on settlement products more often than others. I do not buy products with any settlement indicator, and generally will also not buy products with hashgachot from Jerusalem, since many of them are sourced in the West Bank. Ashdod and Ashkelon are generally “safe” bets. I use this trick for Israeli products generally.