Spicy Eggplant and Almond Rice Bisteeya
If you are a fan of Moroccan cuisine like I am, then you have no doubt come across the iconic version of bisteeya, which is traditionally made with chicken or pigeon. The dish is customarily served as a first course offering. It is always eaten with your hands…which is already appealing to me. It is also always consumed hot – just hot enough to slightly irritate your fingertips. Paula Wolfert, in her classic book Couscous and Other Good Food From Morocco, described the eating experience like this: “To enjoy [bisteeya] Moroccan style, plunge into the burning pastry with the thumb and first two fingers of your right hand and tear out a piece as large or as small as you want. You will burn your fingers, of course, but you will have a lot of fun and the pain will be justified by the taste!”
Now that’s a piece of descriptive food writing which makes you want to jump in and try a bisteeya!
But what about a vegetarian version of bisteeya. I again referred to Paula Wolfert and discovered she didn’t really offer a meatless version…except the breakfast version of almond rice. I also searched around the internet and found several versions which were floating around, but they drifted so far away from traditional Moroccan cuisine and style and I quickly became bored. So, I came up with this idea to try and replicate the experience one would have if eating a version with chicken or pigeon. I settled on eggplant to give the recipe it’s main flavor…and I wasn’t shy about spicing things up as I knew the phyllo pastry would deaden the final flavors. I then thought about the body of the dish, which needed to be substantial. I liked the idea Wolfert presented in using the almond rice, so I adapted her recipe and made it a little less sweet. The rice worked to provide just enough body to keep the mixture intact while baking and didn’t overwhelm the flavor of the eggplant. So voila…my meatless version of Moroccan bisteeya.
I hope you will give the recipe a try as it is a special treat. Don’t be intimidated by the number of ingredients – most of them are just spices. And don’t be afraid of working with phyllo dough; it is a wonderful pastry to use and learning how to use it will expand your cooking skills.
Spicy Eggplant and Almond Rice Bisteeya
makes enough for 6-10 servings
100 gr. Arborio rice
70 gr. ground almonds
5 dl. almond milk
1 cinnamon stick
1 Tbl. orange flower water
1 large eggplant, washed
1 tsp. smoked paprika
1/4 tsp. cayenne pepper
1 onion, sliced thin
pinch of saffron threads
1 tsp. ground turmeric
3/4 tsp. ginger
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/2 preserved lemon, cut into small cubes
1 bunch Italian parsley, roughly chopped
1 bunch fresh coriander, roughly chopped
100 gr. blanched almonds
sea salt for seasoning
300-400 gr. phyllo pastry
Begin by preparing the rice. Heat the almond milk in a 2-liter pot over medium-high heat. Add the rice, ground almonds and cinnamon stick all at once. When the milk comes to a boil, season lightly with salt, reduce the heat to medium-low and cover the pot. Simmer for about 25-30 minutes. The rice should be very soft and the liquid should have mostly evaporated. Remove the pot from the heat when the rice is done and add the orange flower water. Mix well and set the rice aside.
The next task is to prepare the eggplant, onions and spices. Start with the eggplant by cutting it into cubes about 1-cm thick, making sure to leave the skin on the eggplant. Heat a pan over medium-high heat, then add the eggplant. Add enough olive oil to coat the eggplant cubes, then season with salt. Work in batches so the sauté pan is not overcrowded…yes, this is important. Season the cooked eggplant with the cayenne pepper and smoked paprika, the reserve the prepared eggplant. Using the same pan, add 1 Tbl. of olive oil, reduce the heat to medium and add the onion slices. Gently sweat the onion without letting them turn color. Your goal here is to soften the onions so they will soak up the spices. When the onions are soft, add the ground turmeric, ground ginger and ground cinnamon. Toss well. Meanwhile, soften the saffron threads in about 3 Tbl. warm water for 5 minutes. Add the saffron and the soaking liquid to the onions and continue to cook until the water has evaporated (turn up the heat if necessary). When the onions are nearly done, add the reserved eggplant and toss well. Remove the pan from the heat and fold in the preserved lemons. Finish the filling by combining the eggplant with the reserved almond rice, then add the chopped herbs. Allow the mixture to completely cool…in fact, you can go ahead and make this portion of the recipe a day or two in advance, making sure to refrigerate the finished version.
Meanwhile, gently roast the almonds in a 150° C oven for 25 minutes. Cool the nuts then crush them lightly (I put them in a freezer bag and whack a few times with a rolling pin – it’s good therapy). Mix the nuts with 2 Tbl. powdered sugar and 1 tsp. ground cinnamon. Set aside.
Get ready to prepare the bisteeya. Preheat your oven to 210°C.
Unroll the pastry leaves, keeping them under a damp towel to prevent them from drying out. Brush some olive oil over the bottom and sides of a cake pan, then cover the bottom of the pan with a pastry leaf. Arrange 6 more leaves so that they half cover the bottom of the pan and half extend over the sides (the entire bottom of the pan should be covered). Brush the extended leaves with olive oil so they don’t dry out. Fold 4 leaves in half and bake in the oven for 30 seconds, or until crisp but not too browned. Place chunks of the eggplant and rice mixture in the pan so the pastry in the pan is covered. Top with the pre-baked pastry halves, then sprinkle the almond-sugar mixture over the pastry. Cover with 4 additional leaves, brushing each lightly with olive oil. Fold the overlapping leaves in over the top to cover the pie. Brush lightly with more olive oil. Put the final 2 leaves over the top to cover the pie. Brush lightly with still more olive oil and fold neatly under the pie (like tucking in sheets). Brush the entire pie again with olive oil, making sure to pour a small amount around the edge. Bake the pie in a preheated oven until the top pastry leaves are golden brown – about 20 minutes. Shake the pan to loosen the pie and run a spatula around the edges. If necessary, tilt the pan to pour off any excess fat. Invert the pie onto a large, parchment-paper lined baking sheet. Brush the pie with the some more olive oil if it appears dry and return it to the oven to continue baking another 10-15 minutes…or until it’s golden brown. Remove the bisteeya from the oven. Put a plate over the pie and invert. Dust the top of the pie with a little powdered sugar and run crisscrossing lines of cinnamon over the top. Serve hot and enjoy…but watch those fingers!