Sheik al Mehsheh: How eggplant healed a heart, and always welcomes us home
This Lebanese eggplant dish, Sheik al Mehsheh, is so incredibly savory and delicious! Meltingly soft eggplant, tomato sauce, and ground beef or lamb studded with toasted pine nuts, and topped with cheese (Mom’s addition!)–you will LOVE.
I started falling for boys at a fairly young age. In elementary school, each year there was at least one heart-throb who I loved from afar, yearning to stand in line behind him in the cafeteria or get placed on his team for kickball. There was a pair of red striped Adidas, not my usual style, that I insisted on because my little boy crush had these shoes, so surely he’d notice mine.
It was during my teen years that I started to understand what passion, “to suffer,” meant when a boy I was going with shifted his affections to another girl. I heard her favorite color was pink. I promptly bought a pink Swatch. I can be pretty in pink just like her, I thought. My childish ways extended into a week-long moratorium…on eating. It was easier than telling my parents what happened. I just didn’t talk about those sorts of things, figuring that the gulf between what they knew and what I knew was not to be forged (of course I thought I knew more than they did), and I don’t think they were even aware I had this boyfriend. The longing and refusal to eat seemed to compliment my longing for love. Can’t have love, won’t eat. So there.
My mother, unable to get me to tell her why I wasn’t eating, turned to the seduction of her kitchen. She baked cookies and cake, thinking my sweet tooth would bring me down. I held strong. She made macaroni and cheese and my all-time favorite, fried chicken. I sat at the table and willed myself not to eat it, probably one of the more challenging moments of self-denial I’d had at that point in life. That evening my father reached the limits of his patience, and offered me an equally challenging show-down in which he demanded to know what in the $%!@ was going on. His approach left me further resolute…and hungry.
The next day I came home from school and before I set foot in the door, the aroma of roasting eggplant hit me. From the oven emanated the scent of bubbling tomato sauce deeply enriched with eggplant, ground beef, onion, buttery pine nuts, and cinnamon. My mother asked me to check on the sheik al mehshee, traditionally a Lebanese stuffed eggplant dish that she had turned into an even more delicious layered gratin. I opened the oven door and was overpowered not just by the aroma, but the vision of the topping of melting, golden cheese. The mozzarella was not out of her book of Lebanese cookery, but probably borrowed from the techniques of our Italian neighbors across the street. A little bit of cheese on top just added to the succulence of the dish.
She asked me to make the rice, with its handful of toasted angel hair pasta to give the rice another dimension. As I cooked with my mother, and thought about what she’d done for me that week in the kitchen, it hit me that everything was going to be ok even without the boy. That the winds of teen love might shift without notice, but the love of my family was here to stay, and that wasn’t so bad after all. That night, I ate my fill and slept more soundly than I had in a while. By the next morning I had snapped out of it, and was back to my old self again.
For most every homecoming of her five children from college and then their various domiciles, my mother sets to making her sheik al mehshee. She knows that its scent will pull her children to the kitchen, to the table, to her, and open them up to remembering who they are and where they come from, no matter what kinds of aches and pains have wounded them along the way. What she doesn’t perhaps realize is that coming home to find the mouthwatering scent and flavor of sheik al mehshee in her kitchen is nothing compared to finding her there, waiting for us.
Sheik al Mehsheh
- 2 medium-sized firm globe eggplant
- 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 2 teaspoons kosher salt
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 1/2 cup pine nuts
- 1 pound ground lamb or round of beef
- 1 medium yellow onion, coarsely chopped
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
- 1 28 oz. can tomato sauce
- 1 cup crumbled fresh mozzarella cheese
- Line a baking sheet with foil or parchment. Trim the stem from the eggplant. Cut the eggplant in half crosswise (the shorter cut), then cut each half lengthwise in 1/2-inch slices. Brush both sides of eggplant slices with olive oil, and season one side with a teaspoon of salt. Arrange the eggplant on the prepared baking sheet and broil it in batches until it is deep mahogany brown, turning once to brown both sides.
- Preheat the oven to 375°F.
- In a small frying pan, melt 1 tablespoon of butter. Add the pine nuts and cook them, stirring constantly, until they are golden brown. Remove from heat and set aside.
- In a medium sauté pan, melt the butter over medium low heat. Add chopped onion and cook over medium heat until translucent but not browned, stirring occasionally. Add the garlic and cook just until fragrant, about a minute. Add the ground lamb or beef, breaking up the meat into very small pieces with a spoon. Season with salt, cinnamon, and pepper. Cook until the meat is medium-well done, continuing to break up the meat into small pieces with a spoon.
- Butter or oil a 13 x 9 x 2-inch baking or similar sized gratin dish. Spread about ½ cup of tomato sauce in the bottom of the dish. Place eggplant slices over the sauce, covering as much surface area of the bottom of the dish as possible. Spoon half of the meat evenly over the eggplant and pour half of the remaining tomato sauce over the meat. Sprinkle with half of the pine nuts. Now layer again with eggplant, meat, pine nuts, and tomato sauce. Finish with a layer of eggplant and cover that with more tomato sauce.
- Pour enough water around the edges of the dish to fill the gratin a little more than halfway. This is an important step or your sauce will be too thick; it may seem watery when you do this but the sauce will thicken as it bakes.
- Cover the pan tightly with foil and bake for 90 minutes. Remove the foil and sprinkle with crumbled fresh mozzarella cheese. Bake for about ½ hour longer, uncovered, until the cheese is bubbling and golden. Serve warm, over rice.
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