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Eggplant is one of the ultimate comfort foods

Eggplant, in my mind, is one of the ultimate comfort foods.

Slice it, salt it and soak it in some kind of fat, and this unlikely nightshade becomes tender, succulent and packed with the flavors of any ingredients with which it’s paired.

The skin offers a nice contrast and confines the silky flesh into whichever shape the cook has designated.

I’m invariably skeptical when people say they don’t care for eggplant because, as with so many offbeat foods, preparation makes all the difference. Grill eggplant for a burger, and my older son complains there’s no meat patty between the buns. But batter eggplant, fry it and smother it in tomato sauce, and he heralds the dish as his all-time favorite.

On the other end of the spectrum, some diners are put off by mushy foods of any sort, particularly eggplant. So they want theirs a tad toothsome, at least identifiable as eggplant.

I think that’s why eggplant parmesan receives a lukewarm reception in some circles. The dish needs the fat; it needs the frying to elevate the eggplant beyond just another vegetarian casserole.

Indeed, trying to bake or broil eggplant slices before layering them with sauce and cheese inevitably produces a lackluster parmesan. Yes, it saves the work of breading and frying — and also cuts some calories — but the result falls far short of the classic comfort dish.

Eggplant counts many other cuisines as its champion, including Thai, Indian, Greek and Middle Eastern. Over the years, I’ve embraced myriad ways to incorporate garden eggplant. Some recipes put it front and center on the plate while others use it as a backdrop for meats, herbs, spices and distinctive seasonings.

Just when I thought I was familiar with the depth and breadth of eggplant recipes, along came a dish that forever changed the way I handle a bounty of garden eggplant. Casserole of Lamb and Eggplant with Garlic is well worth the expense for lamb shoulder, particularly when eggplant in summer is so affordable — or free from your garden. Although I grow my own eggplant, I never turn down the gift of excess globes from friends when I can freeze them in several ways.

I used to approach preserving eggplant in singular fashion: poke it full of holes, roast in a 350-degree oven until wrinkled and starting to collapse, then scoop the flesh from the skins into resealable, plastic freezer bags. One quart bag yields a batch of baba ghanoush, the eggplant equivalent of hummus. It’s easy to make by substituting roasted eggplant flesh for chickpeas in just about any hummus recipe.

Then I started making caponata, an Italian relish of summer vegetables that freezes remarkably well. When I’m craving warm-weather flavors in winter, I love to pull a container of caponata from the freezer to serve with fresh-baked bread or on a cheese platter.

Joining these in the freezer for the past two summers is peeled, diced and sauteed eggplant for Casserole of Lamb and Eggplant with Garlic. If I can freeze roasted eggplant flesh or eggplant relish, why not cooked eggplant? Then I can use it in a dish that impressed me enough to earn a permanent place in my repertoire. Hailing from the south of France, this casserole has been likened to the iconic French dish cassoulet, considered by some gourmets the epitome of comfort food with peasant roots.

To safeguard a supply of eggplant for this dish through the winter, I simply skip down to the recipe’s instructions for browning eggplant cubes. Instead of transferring the browned cubes to a casserole with the dish’s other ingredients, I package them into resealable, plastic bags and store them in my freezer. When I want Casserole of Lamb and Eggplant with Garlic, I let a bag of eggplant thaw overnight in the refrigerator and simply stir the contents into the other ingredients at the appropriate point in the recipe.

Casserole of Lamb and Eggplant With Garlic

2-3/4 pounds boneless lamb shoulder, cut into 1-1/2-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, peeled, 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)

Black pepper, to taste

3/4 cup fresh breadcrumbs

3 large garlic cloves, peeled

1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley

2 tablespoons butter

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Sprinkle the pieces of lamb with some salt. In a cast-iron or heavy skillet, heat 1/2 cup of the oil over medium heat. Add lamb pieces to oil in batches, brown them all over, for 5 to 7 minutes per batch, then transfer to a large casserole.

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

Pour the stock into lamb casserole and tuck in the bouquet garni. Transfer casserole to preheated oven and bake, uncovered, until lamb is tender, for about 1-1/2 hours. Stir mixture 2 or 3 times while cooking. Discard bouquet garni. Add pepper and taste for seasoning. (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 topping. Add the breadcrumbs to bowl of a food processor and slice in the garlic. Pulse until garlic is coarsely chopped. Add the parsley and pulse until everything is finely chopped. In a pan, melt the butter with remaining 2 tablespoons of oil. Add breadcrumb mixture and stir until evenly coated with butter.

Heat oven broiler. Sprinkle topping over lamb mixture. Put casserole on an oven rack so topping is about 2 inches from heat and broil until lightly browned, for 3 to 5 minutes. Watch carefully and turn casserole as necessary so topping browns evenly and doesn’t burn. Serve as soon as possible.

Makes 6 servings.

Adapted by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch from “Backroad Bistros, Farmhouse Fare: A French Country Cookbook,” by Jane Sigal.

Caponata

2 pounds small, firm eggplant cut into 3/4-inch cubes

Fine sea salt, as needed

Vegetable oil, for frying

Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

1/4 cup olive oil

1 onion, peeled and chopped

3 stalks celery, cut crosswise into 1/4-inch curls

1 cup tomato sauce

1-1/4 cups meaty green olives, pitted and coarsely chopped

2 tablespoons capers, rinsed and patted dry

3 tablespoons sugar

4 to 6 tablespoons white-wine vinegar

3 tablespoons coarsely chopped, fresh, flat-leaf parsley

Toss the eggplant cubes with some of the salt. Heap into a colander set over a bowl. Set a plate on top and weight it down with something heavy. Let drain for 1 hour. Pat dry.

Heat 3 tablespoons of the vegetable oil in a large skillet set over medium-high heat. When oil is shimmering, add one-third of eggplant; do not crowd. Fry, stirring now and then, until cubes are browned (adjusting heat so they don’t scorch), for about 4 minutes. Drain on paper towels. Season to taste with the pepper. Repeat, adding oil as needed, frying eggplant and seasoning with pepper in 2 more batches.

Wipe any remaining vegetable oil out of skillet. Heat the olive oil over medium heat. Tumble in the onion and cook, stirring often, until golden-brown, for about 5 minutes. Stir in the celery; cook until just beginning to soften, for about 5 minutes. Pour in the tomato sauce; simmer for 5 minutes. Add the olives, capers, sugar and 4 tablespoons vinegar. Simmer for 5 minutes to allow flavors to mingle and sauce to thicken.

Add fried eggplant and the parsley; stir to coat. Taste and add more salt, sugar or vinegar if you like. Cook just until eggplant is heated through. Remove pan from heat. Let cool completely.

Serve on crostini, as a side to roast chicken, grilled lamb or sausages. Or top with an egg for a simple meal. Leftover caponata keeps for at least 1 week, refrigerated.

Makes about 6 cups.

Adapted by the Chicago Tribune from “Preserving Italy” by Domenica Marchetti.

Eggplant Parmesan

2 (28-ounce) cans Italian plum tomatoes

Chicken stock or water, as needed

1/2 teaspoon salt, divided

Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Crushed red pepper flakes, to taste

2 pounds eggplants

2 cups flour

3 eggs, lightly beaten with 2 tablespoons water

2 cups breadcrumbs

Oil, as needed

Cooking spray, as needed

3/4 pound mozzarella cheese, grated

2 ounces grated Parmesan, or as needed

Pulse the tomatoes in a food processor until you have a coarse puree. Bring to a boil in a large saucepan, then reduce heat and simmer to reduce, for 15 to 20 minutes. If too thick, add the chicken stock or water as needed to adjust consistency. Season with 1/4 teaspoon of the salt, or more to taste, and black pepper and crushed red pepper to taste.

While tomatoes are simmering, cut the eggplants into 1/4- to 1/2-inch slices. Season with remaining salt. Set up a breading assembly line: put the flour in 1 shallow bowl, the egg wash in a second and the breadcrumbs in a third. Dredge eggplant slices in flour, then coat in egg wash and coat with breadcrumbs.

Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat. When hot, add enough oil to cover bottom of pan by 1/8 inch. Wait 30 seconds to allow oil to come up to temperature, then fry eggplant slices in batches, until golden-brown, for about 2 to 3 minutes per side.

If, between batches, oil is gone and breadcrumbs in pan are starting to burn, take pan off heat, let it cool a bit, then wipe it clean-ish with several layers of paper towels. Put it back on heat, add more oil and proceed.

When slices are golden-brown on both sides, transfer them to a paper towel-covered platter to soak up extra oil.

Spray a 9-by-13-inch baking dish with some of the cooking spray; ladle in just enough tomato sauce to cover bottom. Cover tomato sauce with a layer of eggplant slices, then top with a thin layer of the mozzarella cheese. Cover with tomato sauce, then repeat process of eggplant, cheese and sauce, creating at least 2, maybe 3 layers. Cover final layer of eggplant with sauce and the Parmesan cheese. (You may have leftover sauce.)

Bake in a 350-degree oven until top is brown and bubbly and eggplant is heated through, for 20 to 30 minutes. Remove from oven; rest for 10 minutes before cutting and serving.

Reach freelance writer Sarah Lemon at thewholedish@gmail.com.

Casserole of Lamb and Eggplant with Garlic.Hillary Levin/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/TNS