Month of May: “Together: Our Community Cookbook” Recipe: Intlak Alsaiegh’s Beef and Eggplant Casserole

“We write to taste life in the moment and in retrospect. ” Anais Nin

This Persian recipe takes a little time to prepare. Each ingredient is gently pan fried and then assembled together for a final roasting. I didn’t have any tamarind paste so I substituted lime juice mixed with brown sugar. The sweetness of the sauce makes for a delightful surprising combination that enhances the soft eggplant and brings all the flavors together.

Yesterday I started packing up my studio. I have just a few more days here and then my blog is ready to come to an end. I organized the box of letters I had written Abby and she so lovingly saved. Over the months I have read and re-read each letter that span a decade of the 1990’s. Not only are these letters a precious physical belonging that I treasure, they also have come to represent something else. Letter after letter, the theme of longing is strikingly present. Longing to be in driftless region of southwest Wisconsin, longing to be near my friend, longing to be in those god damn magical hills, longing for my independence, longing for my freedom, year after year, writing after writing.

The box also included a handful of romantic letters from an old love that I must have given her to hold onto for me. She knew all too well that I had a tendency to throw away failed relationship memorabilia out of anger and pain. I am so glad she saved them for me. I can look back now on those days of passion and heartbreak with an acquired wisdom that softens the edges with a more mature understanding. Also included were letters from a few friends and lovers of Abby’s, photos, cards and some poetic scribblings. The shoe box was stuffed, it was black and labeled “rock and candy.”

I thought about the last time Abby and I ever talked. Days before her last communication to me by text, we were having a phone conversation while I was taking a walk. I remember it was a warm early spring morning and crab apple blossoms were all over the sidewalk were I was standing. I was looking down. I vividly remember a dense layer of pink petals all around my feet. She said Rita had come to get the kids and she needed to hang up. We were trying to agree upon the best date for a visit. I was finally coming back to the midwest to see her. The next morning she texted me for the last time. “I’m sorry I had to go so abruptly. I feel there was something else you wanted to say.”

Can you believe it?? Those were her last words to me, forever and ever. So haunting, so uncanny, so prophetic. I responded with a one word “nope” and a winking emoji. But I was wrong. Unknowingly, I was so very wrong! There were many more things I wanted to say and hence “A Year at Portsmouth” was born out of that desperate need to say more, much much more.

Ingredients: 3/4 pound ground beef, 4 large minced garlic cloves, 3/4 tsp curry powder, 2 eggplants about 1.5 pounds cut into 1/2 inch slices, 1/2 cup olive oil, 2 large potatoes peeled and cut into 1/2 inch slices, 1 large onion peeled and cut into 1/2 inch slices, 1 large green pepper cored and sliced (I used red), 1.5 cups water, 4 tbsp tamarind paste, 1.5 tbsp sugar, 3 ripe tomatoes cut into 1/2 inch slices, salt and pepper.

1.Preheat oven to 400. Place the beef and half the garlic into a bowl, add curry powder ( I used ground cumin and turmeric) and mix. Make into 12 small meatballs and set aside.

2. Heat a large non stick pan to medium high heat. Brush the eggplant with oil on both sides and cook for 4-5 minutes each side until golden. Brush the potato slices with oil and cook for about 6 minutes on each side. They should be golden but not cooked all the way through. Set aside.

3.Cook the onion slices and pepper in about 2 tbsp of oil for about 5 minutes. At last minute put in remaining garlic and set aside. Cook meatballs for about 2-3 minutes until golden but not cooked through.

4. In a measuring cup mix the water with the tamarind paste (I used brown sugar and lime juice to taste) and sugar until blended. Arrange the eggplant, potato, onion, pepper, tomatoes and meatballs in a 12 inch round baking dish overlapping them. Pour over the sauce. Cover with foil and cook for 30 minutes then uncover and cook 20 minutes more. Serve with basmati rice.

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