Fat’s gotten a bad rap for a long time in the wellness world. It’s not hard to understand why, given that its own name has become synonymous with muffin tops and cankles.
But having been raised on olive oil fried eggs and the philosophy that an avocado a day keeps the doctor away, I’m glad that people are finally putting down the fat-free SnackWells cookies and starting to reevaluate their healthy choices according to a different barometer.
Despite this progress, I still get criticized all the time for slapping the word “healthy” on my recipes alongside a few tablespoons of butter. And I still have to tinker with the amount of oil I use when developing recipes for fitness magazines like SELF, who live and die by the fat grams reported on their nutrition calculators.
Since I believe in real, unprocessed food, even if it contains pure fat, it’s hard for me to not feel like a hypocrite when I turn in a recipe for cheesecake with low fat sour cream and fat-free cream cheese, and just one measly tablespoon (if I’m lucky) of butter in the gluten-free crust. But mama couldn’t afford her own olive oil budget without these jobs, and sometimes you have to just bite your fat-forward tongue in order to please a client.
If you haven’t noticed by now, or gotten the picture from the above, I view fat as an essential nutrient, and I actively add it to my diet in healthy amounts and diverse forms. Like any food, too much of a good thing is, for lack of more technical nutritional jargon, bad. So I do try to switch up my oils from day to day, usually between olive, coconut, sunflower, flax seed, and canola.
But olive oil will always have my heart. Growing up, my mother had at least 5 large bottles of it on hand, and I would watch her blow through them in a matter of weeks. There’s a story in my cookbook about the way she would spoon-feed herself frozen peas in a bath of olive oil so deep, from far away, you’d think she was eating soup. Despite these questionable habits, my mother remains to this day, the most health-conscious woman I know. And she’s always ten years ahead of a trend, if her pre-millennial love of millet is any indication.
If there’s one fad that her life-long love of olive oil fits under it’s the newly coined “Mediterranean Diet”—otherwise known throughout eternity as the way Greek people eat. When I explore new cuisines, I love generically asking at restaurants for a side of “sauce” to see what they bring. In Greece, when I did this, what I got was a sauceboat of pure chartreuse-tinged olive oil. And I was more than fine with that outcome.
I make no apologies for the not-so restrained amounts of olive oil I add to all my recipes. And despite my justifications above, I certainly make no apologies for adding it in even looser volumes to the recipes I’m attempting to recreate from my Greek travels. I’m just adhering to the trends, people.
One of my favorite dishes from my recent trip was Imam Bayildi from a little Taverna in Hydra. The pan-fried eggplant casserole is technically a Turkish dish, but I saw it on plenty of menus throughout Greece. It’s baked with tomatoes, garlic, and herbs and served room temperature in a lasagna-like slab. One slice is so decadent and delicious in its simplicity, you might almost forget about your old friend from across the Aegean, Eggplant Parmesan. And she was a terrible influence anyway.
There are far worse dishes on the axis of food evil than a plate full of eggplant, olive oil and tomatoes. So for those of you who would rather eat fat than inject it into your face, here’s to a delicious (and healthy!!!) way to get your olive oil transfusion with a side of vegetables.
Turkish Eggplant Casserole with Tomatoes (Imam Bayildi)
- 2 medium eggplant (or 4 small Italian eggplant), about 1 3/4 pound, thinly sliced 1/4 inch thick lengthwise
- Sea salt
- Olive oil
- 1 small yellow onion, diced
- 2 large garlic cloves, minced
- 1/4 teaspoon red chili flakes
- Dash of cinnamon
- One 14.5 ounce can diced tomatoes
- 2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley, divided
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
Lightly salt the eggplant slices and allow to stand for 20 minutes. Pat the slices dry and set aside.
Heat a thin layer of olive oil in a large oven proof (preferably cast iron) skillet. Pan fry the eggplant in batches over medium-high heat until golden brown on both sides, about 2 minutes per side. Add more oil as necessary between batches so the eggplant doesn't burn, but try not to have too heavy a hand - the pan just needs to be greased. Remove the eggplant to a plate.
Add the onion to the skillet and saute over medium heat until soft, 5 minutes. Add the garlic, chili flakes, 1/2 teaspoon sea salt and cinnamon. Cook for one minute more, until fragrant. Carefully pour in the tomatoes and simmer until thickened slightly, 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in half the parsley.
If using an ovenproof skillet, remove 3/4 of the sauce to a bowl, leaving a thin layer behind. Otherwise, add 1/4 cup of sauce to the bottom of a 8x8 or comparable casserole dish. Arrange one layer of eggplant evenly in the bottom of the skillet or dish. Slather with a layer of sauce, and repeat with the remaining eggplant and sauce - like you would a lasagna.
Cover with foil and bake in the oven for 45 minutes, until the eggplant is very soft and the sauce has reduced. Allow to sit for 10 minutes before cutting into it. Garnish with the remaining parsley and serve warm or at room temperature.