Voulez-vouz couche avec moi ce soir?

Tonight, from Claudia Roden’s The New Book of Middle Eastern Food: Lamb meatballs with eggplant sauce served over bulgar pilaf with pine nuts.

I’m going to admit it right up front: this was not my week to pick the Smackdown battle, and I was not overly psyched about these dishes; I have a backache and am a little cranky, and I really could have gone for some mac and cheese. But once one accepts the Smackdown (and buys all the ingredients… and has a spouse who’s really, really excited), one does not back away from the smackdown. Plus, spicy lamb meatballs. Yum.

There ain’t no party like a Scranton party, ‘cuz a Scranton party don’t stop.

For eggplant sauce you need eggplants, so two large, shiny specimens were unceremoniously poked with a fork and shoved into a 500 degree oven to meet their maker, the eggplant god. While they started roasting, causing untold amounts of steam to belch from the top of the stove, we prepped the ingredients for the meatballs: ground lamb, egg and fresh breadcrumbs for binding and, more importantly, freshly toasted and ground cumin seeds and allspice berries.

I highly recommend using the freshest spices you can find. For us, this means keeping as many spices as possible in their whole forms and toasting/grinding as needed, and buying good-quality pre-ground spices in small amounts. We’ve only started doing this recently, but after breathing in the delicious aroma of the freshly ground allspice and cumin I’m a total convert. (FYI, I really like World Spice Merchants for spices. They’re small but have a great selection, and everything is ground to order.)

This is a face made of meat, and no amount of wit will disguise that fact. It will haunt your dreams.

Combining the meat mixture by hand, as we did, is somewhat therapeutic. Also, the squishy meat makes funny noises. However, it may also cause you to engage in conduct such as that pictured about, so don’t say I didn’t warn you. Eventually, we did subdue the meat leprechaun by dividing it into golf-ball size meatballs, which went into a hot pan with some canola oil.

NOTE: Not a pile of worms.

The eggplants emerged after about 30 minutes, mere shadows of their former selves. With the lamb under control for the moment, we returned to heap some final indignities, medieval-style, upon our eggplant victims. First, they were slit down the middle to help them release some steam and cool down faster. Then, their innards were scooped out and their dessicated skins discarded. Finally, as though that were not enough, their eggplanty guts were heaped into a gaudy orange colander and mashed into oblivion with a whisk. So little respect for the eggplant had we that we could not even be bothered to root through the kitchen drawn to find a proper potato masher; a whisk was good enough for the eggplant.

The inquisition ended, and we left our eggplant remains in a colander in the sink so that any remaining eggplant juice could drip out and flee down the drain.

Don’t fear the reaper.

Eventually, the eggplant remains ended up in the ex-meatball-frying pan along with some sauteed onions and garlic and 3 chopped canned San Marzano tomatoes and their juice. The bulgar went into some simmering stock along with salt, pepper and a few tablespoons of toasted pine nuts, which are surely among the nut nobility, perhaps a marquis.

The instructions instructed us to let the sauce reduce and thicken, but our sauce was already pretty darn thick; more a chunky puree than a sauce. We added some more tomato juice from the can, and then wondered why we were doing that if we’d have to reduce the sauce anyway.

When we finish this meal, we’ll all be wearing gold-plated diapers.

So we ignored that directive and nestled the meatballs down into the sauce to simmer for a few minutes while the bulgar finished swelling and becoming edible.

This meal really explored the studio space.

Employing the restaurant trick of using a ring mold (or in our case, a cookie cutter) to build a little grain fortress, we managed to plate the dish in a way that belied its rusticity. Well, we plated one dish that way for a glamor shot; the other featured a pile of meatballs and sauce dumped over a pile of bulger, not as attractive but still quite congenial.

And I’m going to admit this right up front too: for the first 2/3 of my way through the dish, I was still not too thrilled (Brian, however, was thrilled all the way through). I’m sensitive to food textures and tend not to like very chunky tomato-based sauces, and the bulgar wasn’t quick taking care of my mac and cheese jones. For its final third, though, the dish really won me over, and by the end I was sad to be full because I wanted to keep eating it. The sauce was incredibly fresh tasting; since it wasn’t overly seasoned, each of the veggies was really able to shine through. The amount of spice in the meatballs was just right. They had a delicate taste – I don’t know that I could have identified the spices had I not cooked the dish myself – and a wonderful earthiness. The bulgar added a good chewiness that helped elevate the fairly mushy sauce, although the pine nuts got a bit lost.

I’m still not jumping up and down about the texture of the sauce, although I bet I would be if it were run through a food mill. But the flavors were spot on, and I can’t wait for summer to get here so we can make some cumin and allspice-scented lamb burgers on the grill.

Final Score: Us 1, Food 0