Natalie Abrahamian is petite and fit. She speaks quietly and thoughtfully, but laughs loudly. When she does, she tilts her chin back and closes her eyes. It's a completely disarming gesture that conveys her warmth in an instant. Her kitchen is modern, thanks to a recent renovation. There's enough room to waltz from oven to sink, although Natalie seems to spend most of her time near the wide window that looks out on her garden. Her hands are polished, her wrists and fingers adorned with jewelry, and her skin suntanned from the hours she spends tending to her succulents.
Natalie likes to think back on her father's productive garden at their home in Massachusetts. One of her chores as a young girl was to pick parsley. While she did, her father would gather bushels of tomatoes and set them out on the sidewalk for neighbors. Natalie's mother, an orphan of the Armenian genocide who was raised in Istanbul, would cook the foods she knew from her homeland: imam bayildi, baked eggplants stuffed with onions, peppers, and tomatoes; anoush abour, a sweet Christmas pudding made of slowly simmered pearled wheat, dried apricots, nuts, and spices; lamb stew with green beans; and lemony chicken soup with whisked eggs, which are stirred into the hot broth at the last minute.
"She never followed a recipe or measured a thing--just a pinch here, a handful there," Natalie says. She remembers that her mother used to chop onion in the palm of her hand.
These days, Natalie is the one making imam bayildi for her grandchildren. She has re-created the recipe to the best of her memory, with a few tweaks. She swaps red bell peppers for the more traditional green ones, which she thinks taste too bitter, and she first roasts the eggplant in the oven rather than frying it on the stovetop. It's not a quick dish, but the result is luscious and satisfying, the kind of food that brings a family together.
Natalie Abrahamian's Imam Bayildi
Look for the long, slim eggplants, usually known as Italian eggplants.
6 Italian eggplants
Extra-virgin olive oil, as needed
2 yellow onions
1 red bell pepper
4 large cloves garlic, peeled
Paprika, to taste
1 large tomato, seeded and chopped
1/3 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
1 cup tomato juice
1 lemon, sliced into wedges, for serving
Preheat the oven to 450°F.
Using a vegetable peeler, remove wide strips of the eggplants' skin. Cut the eggplants open lengthwise, but don't slice completely through them. Sprinkle a big pinch of salt inside each eggplant, then set them all in a colander and let rest for about 30 minutes.
Pat the eggplants dry, then rub with olive oil and place in an oiled baking dish. Bake for 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, prepare the other vegetables: Peel and thinly slice the onions. Remove the stem and seeds from the bell pepper, and cut the pepper into ¼-inch-thick strips. Cut the garlic into thin slices.
Heat a large skillet over medium heat. Swirl in ¼ cup oil and add the onions. Cook, stirring occasionally, for a few minutes, then add the bell pepper and garlic. Continue to cook until the vegetables are tender and have collapsed, about 10 minutes. Season with salt and paprika to taste, stir in the tomato and parsley, and let cool slightly.
When the eggplants have finished roasting, reduce the oven temperature to 350°F.
Arrange the eggplants in the baking dish so that each one is butterflied open. Spoon the onion-pepper mixture in the center of each eggplant half. Drizzle the tomato juice on top. Cover with foil and bake for 45 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature, with a spoonful of the pan juices drizzled over the eggplant and with the lemon wedges served alongside.