I am excited to finally be sharing this recipe! Mainly because I feel guilty keeping something this good all to myself! Elizabeth Begendi is my take on a Turkish dish that (allegedly) dates back to the Ottoman Empire. The original name of the dish translates to mean “The Sultan Liked It”. I love love love this dish so I named my version Elizabeth Begendi which translates to mean “Elizabeth Liked It” and I do….a lot. (I was going for honest but something about naming it after myself feels slightly narcissistic…)
I loved begendi from the first bite (in spite of the fact that I ate it for the first time on a plane…in coach). If I hadn’t lived it, I wouldn’t think such a thing is possible. I know it is hard to believe, but here is what happened:
After living in Turkey for 20 months, I was returning for my first visit to the states. I was looking forward to reuniting with my family. I was looking forward to reuniting with crispy, smoked bacon and Mexican food as well (not much of either in Turkey). As I boarded my plane in Istanbul, I was thinking of the special dinner my mother would prepare and I would eat in a mere 15 hours.
Shortly after take off, the flight attendant handed out menus. Menus….in coach? Oh la la…I was impressed. I opened mine and perused the offerings. There was a choice of two dishes: penne pasta in a cream sauce or a Turkish dish consisting of a grilled chicken breast with eggplant puree. I make it a policy to never order pasta on a plane (especially when it comes in a cream sauce…it always seems to taste how I imagine glue tastes). That only left one option. I would have the chicken and eggplant puree.
My meal was placed on the small tray in front of me and I disinterestedly removed the foil lid from my entree. There in front of me was an anemically pale grilled chicken breast on top of what looked like mashed potatoes. It was colorless and didn’t look at all appetizing but after getting up early to catch the flight and missing breakfast, I was hungry. Now, most of us can probably agree that a meal on a plane is eaten purely for survival, not pleasure. I certainly did not have expectations that this particular meal would be a culinary experience. I dragged the tines of my fork through the edge of the eggplant puree and innocently put it in my mouth. What happened next may be hard to believe but is completely true. My eyes flew open wide in shock. It was one of the best things I had ever eaten…on a plane…or anywhere for that matter! I was in love…with airplane food!
The eggplant puree (known in Turkish as beğendi, pronounced bay-end-E) consisted of a few ingredients in perfect balance. The fire-roasted eggplant had tremendous flavor that was both nutty and smoky . The bechamel sauce used to thicken the puree gave creamy richness. Finally, a hit of lemon juice and salt brightened up the flavors. It was perfect (even though it was served at an altitude of 30,000 feet).
I savored my beğendi there in row 26 seat C. I ate it slowly and talked to the person sitting next to me about how good it was. I wondered if I could ask for a second serving (I didn’t… but I wanted to). I saved my menu from the flight and used it as a bookmark for the duration of my visit in the states. I often looked at it longingly. I hoped that on my return flight to Turkey, I would have the pleasure of eating this smoky eggplant again. Sadly, I didn’t.
When I returned to Turkey, I began (somewhat obsessively) researching how to make beğendi. This recipe evolved from my early experimentation which produced lovely tasting but somewhat colorless results. One day, on a whim, I pureed roasted red peppers with the eggplant which proved to be a good move. The roasted red peppers turned the puree orange AND proved a perfect complement to the eggplant.
It is important that I disclose that before I lived in Turkey, I wasn’t a big fan of eggplant. I liked baba ganoush and eggplant parmesan okay but eggplant itself I could happily live without. Thankfully, the Turks long ago discovered that when eggplant and fire meet, magic happens. As a result, Turkish eggplant dishes are numerous and fantastic. In my opinion, of all the many delicious ways Turks prepare eggplant, beğendi is the crowning achievement. I am convinced that one bite is enough to win over even the most adamant eggplant hater.
This dish is prepared with fairly easily found ingredients so traveling to Istanbul is not necessary.. However, if you do decide to go to Istanbul to explore the glorious depths of beautiful Turkish cuisine, make sure you order the beğendi on the plane!
–Before making beğendi, read the following tips. They should save you time, frustration and possibly even a call to the fire department.–
Before fire-roasting your veggies:
After fire-roasting your veggies:
-The eggplant and the red peppers MUST be fire-roasted. That is where the flavor of the dish comes from. Broiling or any other method of cooking the eggplant will not produce the same result.
-Do not leave eggplants and red peppers unattended while cooking. The skins (especially of the eggplant) often spark and fly into the air.
-The eggplant and peppers can be cooked on a gas burner but it is very time consuming to cook them in this manner as well as a fire hazard. If you plan to do this, have a fire extinguisher ready!
-When it is properly fire-roasted, the skin of the eggplant should be brittle, cracked and completely black, like a burnt piece of paper and the flesh should be soft and somewhat collapsed inside the skin. The peppers should be completely black and blistered.
-.Select long, slender eggplant (roughly the size of a cucumber or plantain) with smooth, dark purple skins.
-.To help remove the last bits of charred skin, rinse the eggplants in the sink under a small stream of cool running water.
-.Make the eggplant puree the day before, cover and refrigerate to allow the flavors to fully develop. Reheat to serve
-.Prepare the puree as an appetizer and serve on crostini, topped with crumbled feta . Or as a dip with pita chips.
For the Eggplant Puree:
2 pounds Japanese eggplant
2 red bell peppers
4 Tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice, divided
4 Tablespoons butter
2 Tablespoons flour
1 ½ c whole milk, heated
salt to taste
Prepare the vegetables: Rinse the eggplant and peppers. Peel off the leaves of the eggplant with your fingers or a paring knife but leave the stem intact.
Fire-roast the vegetables: Ensure that the grill grate is low enough to allow the flames to touch the vegetables. Place the eggplants and peppers on the grill grate and turn gas grill on high. The flames of the grill should touch the skins of the vegetables, turning them black. Check vegetables every couple of minutes and flip with tongs to ensure that all sides are completely charred. When vegetables are done fire-roasting, remove from fire.
Remove charred skins from vegetables: Once vegetables have cooled enough to handle, gently peel off blackened skins of the roasted vegetables and discard, preserving as much of the flesh as possible. See tips to help with skin removal. Remove stems from the eggplants and remove stems and seeds from the red peppers. Place the flesh in a blender (can also use a large glass bowl and a hand blender).
Prepare the puree: Add 2 Tablespoons of lemon juice to the eggplant and red peppers and puree until almost smooth (some small chunks are okay and add texture). In a medium saucepan, melt 4 Tablespoons butter over medium heat. When butter begins to bubble and froth, add 2 Tablespoons flour and whisk constantly. Allow butter and flour to cook for 2 minutes and then, whisking constantly, slowly add in heated milk. When mixture has thickened to a sauce consistency, stir in the eggplant puree. Add salt and lemon juice to taste (you may not use all of the lemon juice which is fine).
For the Chicken Marinade
2 large garlic cloves, thinly sliced
4 Tablespoons Extra Virgin Olive Oil
8 springs fresh thyme, divided
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
In a small bowl, combine olive oil, sliced garlic, the leaves from 4 thyme sprigs, salt and pepper. Coat chicken breasts with marinade, cover and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes to several hours. Remove garlic from marinade and discard. Grill chicken breasts until meat reaches 170 F and juices run clear. Serve chicken on top of eggplant puree and garnish with remaining thyme sprigs or with flat leaf parsley.