IMAM BAYILDI WITH SOFT CHEESE & GARLIC YOGHURT
Imam Bayildi literally translates as “the Imam fainted’ after legend has it that, upon being presented with this dish by the royal kitchen, the great Imam fainted, such was his pleasure.
I have to admit that nobody fainted when I first presented this dish to my friends. My mate Dave looked a little queasy, but he tells me that was down to the late-night kebab he’d had the night before, nothing else. You win some you lose some as they say.
Cocelek is a type of fermented fresh cheese from Turkey, similar though quite distinct from cottage cheese. It's available in most Turkish greengrocers, but in the absence of one nearby, you can substitute with any soft, crumbly cheese of preference. Feta would work well too, for example.
Serves 4 as a starter or 2 as a main
150g full-fat natural yoghurt
2 garlic cloves, very finely chopped
½ tbsp lemon juice
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
2 tbsp salt
50ml olive oil, plus extra to drizzle
2 tbsp Cocelek curd cheese, or any other soft goat’s cheese
4 tbsp garlic yoghurt
1 tbsp finely chopped parsley
2 tbsp capers, fried until crisp and drained on kitchen towel (optional)
100ml olive oil
2 banana shallots, finely diced
3 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1 red chilli, finely sliced
1 tsp smoked paprika
½ tsp ground cumin
1 tsp Aleppo chilli flakes (also known as pul biber or red pepper flakes)
1 tbsp hot red pepper paste (biber salcasi), or use tomato paste instead
1 x 400g chopped tomatoes
1 tbsp lemon juice
1 tbsp date syrup
½ tsp pomegranate molasses
FOR THE GARLIC YOGHURT: In a small bowl, combine the yoghurt, garlic and lemon juice. Whisk in the extra virgin olive oil and season to taste.
FOR THE AUBERGINES: Start by peeling three or four strips out of each aubergine, from the top all the way to the base.
Cut a slit in each aubergine lengthways from the base to within a few centimetres of the top, being careful not to cut through the stalk. Gently ease the aubergine open and score the flesh with a sharp knife. Spread the salt generously into one side and squeeze the aubergine together. Repeat with all of the aubergines, and set them in a colander or sieve over a sink or bowl to drain for no less than 30 minutes and up to 1 hour.
FOR THE TOMATO SAUCE: Whilst the aubergines are salting, make the tomato sauce. Heat 60ml of olive oil in a heavy-based saucepan over medium-low heat and sweat the shallots, garlic and chilli until softened and translucent but not coloured. Stir in the spices and harissa and continue to cook for a few minutes. Pour in the water and stir to combine.
Add the chopped tomatoes, lemon juice, date syrup and pomegranate molasses. Bring to the boil over high heat, turn down the heat to low and simmer the sauce until reduced by half and intensified in flavour. The sauce should be sticky and rich, sweet and not too acidic. Season the sauce with salt and pepper according to taste.
TO FINISH THE AUBERGINES: Preheat the oven to 180°C/160°C Fan/Gas mark 3. Heat the olive oil in a non-stick frying pan over medium heat and fry the baby aubergines on all sides until golden brown. Remove from the pan and place on some kitchen paper to absorb any excess oil. Cool the aubergines until they can be comfortably handled.
Sandwich the curd cheese into the slits of the aubergine, along with some of the tomato sauce, and press the top half of the aubergine down tightly. Arrange the aubergines neatly in a small baking dish, and spoon over the remaining excess tomato sauce. Bake for 15 minutes in the oven until softened and the sauce is bubbling hot. Allow to cool to room temperature.
Serve the aubergines on top of the garlic yoghurt, with the parsley and crispy capers (if using) strewn over the top and any excess sauce spooned all over. A final drizzle of olive oil wouldn’t go amiss.