Eggplant stew (Kawaj)
Mayada’s internal clock is uncannily on point. When making this dish, she covers the pot, layers of eggplant, potatoes, and tomatoes within, and says that in fifteen minutes it will be ready to be stirred together. The staggered cooking times and layering are key, as the vegetables cook at different rates, depending on how close they are to the hottest part of the pot (the bottom). Exactly fifteen minutes later, not one minute too soon, and without a single glance at a clock, she returns to the pot to give it that stir. She covers the pot again and says she’ll check it after another ten minutes. We sit and become immersed in talking about the best beaches for the family to visit along the Jersey shore, and sure enough, precisely ten minutes go by, and Mayada rises to tend to the stew. When this impressive talent is pointed out to her, she merely shrugs with a smile and says that she just feels the time and knows because she’s made this dish so often. Indeed, kawaj is a particular favorite meal of Ahmad’s (and of her father’s, too) and she often prepares it twice a week.
This comforting vegetable stew is hearty as is, but to make it even more substantial, add 1⁄2 pound ground beef, browning it with the onion before layering the vegetables, or serve with a side of Syrian flatbread.
SERVES 6 TO 8
- 1⁄2 cup vegetable oil
- 1 small onion, coarsely grated
- 2 1⁄2 pounds russet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces
- 2 large globe eggplants (about 2 pounds), peeled and cut into 1 1⁄2-inch pieces
- 1 teaspoon sweet paprika
- 1 teaspoon black pepper
- 3 teaspoons salt
- 1⁄2 cup coarsely chopped parsley, leaves and tender stems (a little less than 1⁄2 small bunch)
- 3 medium tomatoes (about 1 1⁄2 pounds), peeled and coarsely chopped
- Parsley leaves, for garnish (optional)
- Heat the oil in a large pot on medium-high. Add the onion and cook for 1 minute, until fragrant. Place the potatoes on top, followed by the eggplant. Do not stir. Sprinkle with the paprika, pepper, and 2 teaspoons of the salt, then the chopped parsley. Do not stir. Cover and cook for 5 minutes.
- Place the tomatoes on top and sprinkle with the remaining 1 teaspoon salt. Do not stir. Cover and cook for 5 minutes more, until the tomatoes begin to soften.
- Stir all the vegetables together, cover, and cook for 15 minutes, until slightly softened. Give everything a good stir, cover again, and cook for 15 to 20 minutes more, until the vegetables are tender, the tomatoes have broken down, and the sauce has thickened. Top with parsley (if using) and serve immediately.
“Mayada’s story is one of an immigrant overcoming adversity through perseverance and her desire to build and connect with her community through her food. This is a cookbook that celebrates Syrian food and the kindness of the human heart.”
— Nik Sharma, founder of A Brown Table, columnist at the San Francisco Chronicle, and author of Seasons: Big Flavors, Beautiful Food