Eggplant might be weird but it's wonderful

Let’s face it, eggplant is weird.

It has a funny shape. It has a funny name.

Eggplant is an all-or-nothing vegetable (technically, it’s a fruit, but let’s not go there). You either love it or you 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. There is something special, something 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, the Provence way.

It was a lot of work. 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.

I appropriated the method of frying eggplant from Bon Appetit magazine. The food mag dredges its 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 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.

Finally, I headed 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.

Lamb and Eggplant Casserole

It’s best to add the lamb pieces in batches so that they can brown evenly in the heavy skillet.

2¾ pounds boneless lamb shoulder, cut into 1½-inch pieces, or lamb stew meat

Salt, to taste

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 ½ teaspoon dried thyme, 6 parsley stems and 1 bay leaf tied in a bundle with kitchen string or cheesecloth)

Black pepper

3/4 cup bread crumbs

3 large garlic cloves, peeled

1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley

2 tablespoons butter

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Sprinkle pieces of lamb with salt. In a cast-iron or heavy skillet, heat ½ cup of the oil over medium heat. Add lamb pieces to the oil in batches, brown them all over, 5 to 7 minutes per batch, then transfer to a large casserole.

Add onions to same pan and cook, stirring, until they are tinged with brown, 8 to 10 minutes. Add them to the lamb in casserole. In the same skillet, brown eggplant in batches with a little salt and add to lamb. Add oil while cooking the eggplant if it looks too dry.

Pour stock into lamb casserole and tuck in the bouquet garni. Transfer casserole to oven and bake, uncovered, until lamb is tender, about 1½ hours. Stir mixture 2 or 3 times while cooking. Discard 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.)

While lamb cooks, make the topping. Add breadcrumbs to a food processor and slice in the garlic. Pulse until garlic is coarsely chopped. Add parsley and pulse until everything is finely chopped. In a pan, melt butter with remaining 2 tablespoons of oil. Add breadcrumb mixture and stir until evenly coated with butter.

Heat broiler. Sprinkle topping over lamb mixture. Put 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 casserole as necessary so the topping browns evenly and doesn’t burn. Serve immediately.

Yield: 6 servings.

— Adapted from “Backroad Bistros, Farmhouse Fare: A French Country Cookbook” by Jane Sigal (Broadway; 1994)


Eggplant Carpaccio

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. 

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

Roast eggplants. Cool slightly and cut open. Place each eggplant on a plate and flatten slightly with a fork.

Pour small puddles of tahini, yogurt, honey, olive oil and lemon juice over eggplant. Spoon out the contents of ½ 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.

— “The Book of New Israeli Food: A Culinary Journey” by Janna Gur (Schocken; 2008)

Pepper Spread

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.

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

Puree hot peppers in a food processor. Add add roasted bell peppers and eggplant, and continue processing until smooth.

Combine 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 ¼ cup of the olive oil. Simmer, stirring frequently, until the sauce thickens and cooks down, about another hour. Add the remaining ¼ cup olive oil, garlic and 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 glass jar. Let it cool in the jar, cover tightly with the lid and store in the refrigerator. 

Yield: About 6 cups.

— “The Glorious Foods of Greece” by Diane Kochilas (William Morrow Cookbooks; 2001)


Eggplant Parmesan

Layer the eggplant slices between layers of paper towel as this will give them a creamy texture when baked.

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

For the marinara: Discard the hard stems of the tomatoes and crush the tomatoes with your hands. Reserve the juice. Heat olive oil in a large pot over medium-high heat. Add onion and garlic and saute until onion is translucent, about 3 to 5 minutes. Add tomatoes and their juice. Cook at a low simmer, stirring occasionally, until thickened, about 1 hour.

For the eggplant: While sauce is cooking, peel eggplant and slice it it lengthwise in pieces ½-inch to ¾-inch thick. Lightly season slices 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.

Pulse panko, oregano, pepper and ¾ cup of Parmesan in a food processor until very finely ground. Transfer to a shallow bowl.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place flour on a plate or in a shallow bowl and eggs in another shallow bowl. Working one at at time, dredge eggplant slices in flour, then dip in egg, allowing excess to drip off. Coat in bread crumb mixture, packing all around, then shaking off excess. Place on wire racks.

Heat 1 cup oil in a large skillet, preferably cast iron, over medium-high heat. Heat until oil temperature reaches 350 degrees. 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.

Working in batches, repeat with remaining slices, adding remaining 1 cup oil and wiping out skillet as needed.

Toss together remaining ¾ 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 ⅓ of the cheese mixture. Add another layer of eggplant, followed by 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 and bake on a rimmed baking sheet until eggplant is custardy, 45 to 60 minutes.

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 longer. 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.

— Adapted from a Bon Appetit recipe


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