Let’s face it, eggplant is weird. It has a funny shape. It has a funny name. It has a funny taste.
It is an all-or-nothing vegetable (technically, it’s a fruit, but let’s not go there). You either love it or hate it.
I happen to love it. I love its mushy texture and the disconcerting way it has of absorbing all the oil you cook it in. I love the different shapes it comes in, and colors. I love the way it goes with garlic and with tomatoes and with olive oil. I especially love the way it goes with lamb.
Few flavors blend as blissfully and synergistically as eggplant and lamb. Chocolate and caramel, perhaps. Ketchup and french fry.
But there is something special, almost unworldly about the blending of flavors you get when lamb meets eggplant. And so, for my first eggplant-related dish, I decided to make a casserole of lamb and eggplant with garlic.
It was a lot of work. To be honest, all of the eggplant dishes I made, except one, were more work than I thought they were going to be. But they were all well worth it, especially the casserole.
Eggplant is popular all around the Mediterranean, and indeed this recipe comes from Provence. The author of the cookbook it was featured in, Jane Sigal, says, “if they made cassoulet in Provence, it might taste like this.”
The lamb, eggplant and onions are all browned in olive oil and then braised in a cup of chicken stock. After it bakes, it is covered in a breadcrumb topping that adds an entirely new dimension because it is made with a lot of garlic. Also, butter and olive oil. It’s hard to go wrong with butter and olive oil.
Next, because we were dealing with eggplant, I made Eggplant Parmesan. Of course I did.
I appropriated the method of frying eggplant from Bon Appetit magazine. They dredge their lengthwise-sliced eggplant in ground panko breadcrumbs mixed with Parmesan cheese mixed with oregano and pepper. I liked the crisp texture this produced better than the other way I tried it, which was essentially an Italian form of tempura.
The tempura version tasted great, but it ended up being a little greasy when mixed with the other ingredients. For a sauce, I used my favorite, bright-tasting marinara, and between layers I sprinkled plenty of Parmesan and mozzarella cheeses.
From Italy, I moved farther east, to Greece, and a wonderful, multipurpose spread. It’s called pepper spread because, frankly, the main flavor is roasted red peppers. But it also has some eggplant in it, which lends a subtle undertone to the sweet and pungent red peppers and the heat from a handful of serranos. Crushed tomatoes — I used the canned stuff — tempers and blends the flavors.
The recipe makes an enormous amount of the spread, about six cups. But it lasts forever in the fridge, and it can be used in countless ways. I spread it on pita, but I also put it on a hamburger. Eggs, I’m sure, will be next.
Finally, I headed east once more, to Israel and the only truly easy dish of the week. I have been making eggplant carpaccio for years. Basically, it’s a roasted eggplant that is split open and then filled with lots of goodies.
You can roast the eggplant on a grill, which gives it the best flavor, or on top of a burner if your stove is fitted for gas. If need be, you can roast it under a broiler in an electric oven.
When it is soft all over, then comes the fun part. Just spoon on some tahini, yogurt, tomatoes, honey, lemon juice, olive oil, garlic, hot pepper and a sprig or two of oregano, plus salt and pepper.
You can leave out an ingredient or two if you want, or add more. That’s how eggplant works. It’s weird, but it’s great.
CASSEROLE OF LAMB
AND EGGPLANT WITH GARLIC
2¾ pounds boneless lamb shoulder, cut into 1 1/2-inch pieces, or lamb stew meat
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons olive oil, plus more if needed, divided
2 medium onions, halved and thinly sliced
2 pounds eggplant, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes
1 cup chicken stock
1 bouquet garni (1 branch fresh thyme or 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme, 6 parsley stems and 1 bay leaf tied in a bundle with kitchen string or cheesecloth)
3/4 cup breadcrumbs
3 large garlic cloves, peeled
1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley
2 tablespoons butter
1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
2. Sprinkle the pieces of lamb with salt. In a cast-iron or heavy skillet, heat 1/2 cup of the oil over medium heat. Add the pieces of lamb to the oil in batches, brown them all over, 5 to 7 minutes per batch, then transfer to a large casserole.
3. Add the onions to the same pan and cook, stirring, until they are tinged with brown, 8 to 10 minutes. Add them to the lamb in the casserole. In the same skillet, brown the eggplant in batches with a little salt and add it to the lamb. Add oil while cooking the eggplant if it looks too dry.
4. Pour the stock into the lamb casserole and tuck in the bouquet garni. Transfer the casserole to the oven and bake, uncovered, until the lamb is tender, about 1 1/2 hours. Stir the mixture 2 or 3 times while cooking. Discard the bouquet garni. Add pepper and taste for seasoning. (The casserole can be cooked to this point a day or two ahead and chilled. Reheat, covered, in a 350 degree oven before proceeding).
5. While the lamb cooks, make the topping. Add the breadcrumbs to a food processor and slice in the garlic. Pulse until the garlic is coarsely chopped. Add the parsley and pulse until everything is finely chopped. In a pan, melt the butter with the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil. Add the breadcrumb mixture and stir until evenly coated with the butter.
6. Heat the broiler. Sprinkle the topping over the lamb mixture. Put the casserole on an oven rack so the topping is about 2 inches from the heat and broil until lightly browned, 3 to 5 minutes. Watch carefully and turn the casserole as necessary to the topping browns evenly and doesn’t burn. Serve as soon as possible. Yield: 6 servings
Per serving: 561 calories; 41 g fat; 12 g saturated fat; 88 mg cholesterol; 26 g protein; 23 g carbohydrate; 8 g sugar; 6 g fiber; 384 mg sodium; 69 mg calcium
Adapted from “Backroad Bistros, Farmhouse Fare: A French Country Cookbook,” by Jane Sigal
For the marinara:
2 (28-ounce) cans whole tomatoes, good quality
1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 cup chopped onion
1 garlic clove, crushed
For the eggplant:
4 pounds eggplant
Salt, preferably kosher
3 cups panko breadcrumbs
1½ teaspoons dried oregano
1 teaspoon black pepper
1½ cups finely grated Parmesan cheese, divided
1½ cups all-purpose flour
5 large eggs, beaten to blend
2 cups olive oil, divided
6 ounces low-moisture mozzarella, grated
6 ounces sliced mozzarella
1. For the marinara: Cut off and discard the hard stems of the tomatoes and crush the tomatoes with your hands (be sure to wear an apron). Reserve the juice. Heat the 1/4 cup olive oil in a large pot over medium-high heat. Add the onion and garlic and sauté until the onion is translucent, about 3 to 5 minutes. Add the tomatoes and their juice. Cook at a low simmer, stirring occasionally, until thickened, about 1 hour.
2. For the eggplant: While the marinara is cooking, peel the eggplant and slice it it lengthwise in pieces 1/2 inch to 3/4 inch thick. Lightly season slices all over with salt; place in a single layer on several layers of paper towels inside a rimmed baking sheet. Top with another layer of paper towels and more slices; repeat as needed. Top with a final layer of paper towels, then another rimmed baking sheet; weigh down with a heavy pot. Let eggplant sit until it has released excess liquid, 45 to 60 minutes. This step gives the eggplant a creamy texture when baked.
3. Meanwhile, pulse panko, oregano, pepper and 3/4 cup of the Parmesan in a food processor until very finely ground. Transfer to a shallow bowl.
4. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place flour on a plate or in a shallow bowl and eggs in another shallow bowl. Working one at a time, dredge eggplant slices in flour, then dip in egg, allowing excess to drip off. Coat in breadcrumb mixture, packing all around, then shaking off excess. Place on wire racks.
5. Heat 1 cup oil in a large skillet, preferably cast iron, over medium-high heat. Heat until oil temperature reaches 350 degrees (if you don’t have a thermometer, dip a corner of a slice of eggplant in the oil; if it immediately begins to bubble and fry, the oil is ready). Cook as many eggplant slices as will comfortably fit in pan, turning once, until deep golden, about 5 minutes in total. Transfer to paper towels and immediately press with more paper towels to absorb oil. Season with salt and cool on wire racks.
6. Working in batches, repeat with remaining slices, adding remaining 1 cup oil and wiping out skillet as needed.
7. Toss together remaining 3/4 cup Parmesan and grated mozzarella cheeses. Spread 1 cup sauce over the bottom of a 13-by-9-inch baking pan; top with a layer of eggplant slices, trimming as needed. Drizzle 1 cup sauce (or a little more, if needed to cover) over eggplant and sprinkle with 1/3 of the cheese mixture. Add another layer of eggplant, then 1 cup sauce (or a little more) and half of the remaining cheese mixture. Repeat layers with the remaining slices, sauce and cheese mixture. Cover with foil, bake on a rimmed sheet until eggplant is custardy, 45 to 60 minutes.
8. Remove from oven and arrange mozzarella slices over eggplant. Increase oven temperature to 425 degrees and bake uncovered until cheese is bubbling and browned in spots, 15 to 20 minutes. Let rest 30 minutes before serving. This dish can be made up to 2 days ahead, covered in foil and refrigerated (once cooled). Reheat at 350 degrees, uncovering halfway through, until bubbling gently at edges. Yield: 12 servings
Per serving: 671 calories; 45 g fat; 11 g saturated fat; 105 mg cholesterol; 21 g protein; 49 g carbohydrate; 12 g sugar; 10 g fiber; 737 mg sodium; 416 mg calcium
Adapted from a recipe in Bon Appétit
6 to 10 small thin hot peppers, such as serranos, seeded and finely chopped
4 pounds red bell peppers, roasted and peeled, see note
1 large eggplant, about 1 pound, roasted and peeled, see note
2 cups canned crushed tomatoes
1/2 cup olive oil, divided
6 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 cup finely chopped parsley
Salt to taste
Note: To roast red peppers, place on a foil-covered baking sheet in a 425 degree oven. Cook until charred and softened all over, about 25 to 30 minutes. Place in a paper bag and close the bag or wrap individually in plastic wrap (after first allowing to cool slightly for a few minutes). Let sit 15 minutes. You should be able to pull off the skin easily with your fingers. Remove the stem and discard all the seeds.
— To roast eggplant, place it on a grill or on a cooking element over a gas burner, turning frequently until charred and softened all over. Or, poke holes all over with a fork and broil it in the oven about 8 inches from the heat source. Turn frequently until softened all over.
1. Puree the hot peppers in a food processor, then add the roasted bell peppers and eggplant and continue processing until smooth.
2. Combine the puree and crushed tomatoes in a large pot and bring to a simmer over medium heat, stirring constantly, until thickened slightly, about 10 to 15 minutes. Add 1/4 cup of the olive oil. Simmer, stirring frequently, until the sauce thickens and cooks down, about another hour. Add the remaining 1/4 cup olive oil, the garlic and the parsley, season with salt, and continue to cook, stirring, until all the liquid has cooked off, 15 minutes or so. Let cool slightly and spoon into a large, clean glass jar. Let it cool in the jar, cover tightly with the lid and store in the refrigerator. The pepper spread will keep indefinitely. Yield: About 6 cups
Per (2-tablespoon) serving: 38 calories; 2 g fat; no saturated fat; no cholesterol; 1 g protein; 4 g carbohydrate; 3 g sugar; 1 g fiber; 25 mg sodium; 12 mg calcium
Recipe from “The Glorious Foods of Greece,” by Diane Kochilas
4 medium eggplants
4 tablespoons tahini
4 tablespoons yogurt
4 teaspoons honey
8 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
4 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
2 tomatoes, halved
1 teaspoon crushed garlic
1 teaspoon chopped hot green pepper
Coarse sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 small bunch of fresh hyssop or oregano leaves
1. Roast the eggplants by placing them on a grill or on a cooking element over a gas burner, turning frequently until charred and softened all over. Or, poke holes all over with a fork and broil them in the oven about 8 inches from the heat source. Turn frequently until softened all over.
2. Cool slightly and cut open. Place each eggplant on a plate and flatten slightly with a fork.
3. Pour small puddles of tahini, yogurt, honey, olive oil and lemon juice over the eggplant. Spoon out the contents of 1/2 of one tomato over each eggplant. Season with garlic, hot pepper, salt and pepper. Garnish with hyssop or oregano and serve immediately. Yield: 4 servings
Per serving: 512 calories; 37 g fat; 5 g saturated fat; 2 mg cholesterol; 9 g protein; 46 g carbohydrate; 28 g sugar; 19 g fiber; 78 mg sodium; 143 mg calcium
Recipe from “The Book of New Israel Food: A Culinary Journey,” by Janna Gur