Taking on The New York Times

In the past several months, The NY Times has posted quite a few eggplant recipes. Being an avid eggplant fan, I buy some every week from Larry's Veggies at the farmers market, and have now made three of the Times' recipes.

Each time, though, the eggplant quantities have been way off. By at least half. Do they not like eggplant? Are they just pretending because they know it's the “hot” vegetable now?

Strangely, the three recipes are all by different author/cooks. And all three recipes have received multiple comments that say, “Double the eggplant.” or “I ran out of eggplant in the middle of the second [of three] layer.” This is exactly what happened to me. Luckily, today, I had another eggplant on hand to finish the dish.

Thus, I have taken on this one of the three, and resized and edited it for you. I’m not coming from the point of view that if something is good, excess must be great. I’m just proposing a rational ratio of ingredients.

Don't you love this towel? Friends Laura and Arch brought it from Greece.
This includes a few adjustments, such as adding specific weights for some ingredients (eggplant and onion), while deleting quantities from others (olive oil and salt).

Why these changes? Weights can really help to ensure you have the right ratio of flavors. However, saying to brush the eggplant with a tablespoon of oil means only one thing: you will run out of oil less than halfway through. And salt? Well, that's getting a bit personal…

I also recommend peeling the eggplant. While I like the skins, I look at this from the serving perspective. Eggplant skins make eggplant casseroles hard to cut and serve.

While I read the recipe through to the end before starting, I almost missed the fleeting phrase “serve over rice.” There was no rice in the ingredients list. It is mentioned only in the last sentence. In addition to adding the rice to the ingredients list, I also suggest starting the rice at the same time the casserole is uncovered to add the cheese and finish the cooking. This way, the rice and casserole end up being done at the same time.

We absolutely love this dish, and - I tell you with complete and utter embarrassment - we ate the entire casserole that night, just the two of us. Any sense of regret was overpowered by euphoria.

We served a Côtes du Rhône rosé that worked nicely with this Mediterranean-inspired dish, and afterwards sliced fresh peaches into our leftover wine for a light and flavorful dessert. To read more about the pairing, visit the Provence WineZine.

Is it Greek? Italian? French? For us, it doesn't matter - it is a simply wonderful combination of sunny Mediterranean flavors.

~ David

Baked Eggplant and Lamb with Tomatoes and Pine Nuts

2 large firm eggplants, about 1 pound each, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch slices
extra-virgin olive oil
kosher salt
1 small yellow onion, about 4 ounces, finely diced
1 pound ground lamb
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon unsalted butter
1/4 cup pine nuts
2 cups strained or crushed tomatoes
1/2 cup warm chicken stock
6 ounces fresh mozzarella, sliced
rice, for serving

Heat broiler with the rack positioned 4-5 inches from the element, and line two baking sheets with foil or parchment.

Brush both sides of eggplant slices with olive oil and sprinkle liberally with salt. Arrange slices on prepared baking sheets and broil - one sheet at a time - until eggplant slices are a deep mahogany brown, turning once halfway through, 5 to 7 minutes per side.

Adjust the oven to 375°F, and position rack in the center.

In a 10-inch skillet, heat 1 tablespoon olive oil over medium heat. Add onion and sauté until translucent, but not browned, stirring occasionally, about 5 minutes. Add ground lamb, stirring frequently, breaking up meat into very small pieces with the side of a wooden spoon. Season with salt, cinnamon, and pepper. Sauté until meat is just cooked through, then taste for seasoning and adjust accordingly.

In a small skillet, melt butter over medium heat. Add pine nuts, stir to coat with the butter, and reduce heat to medium-low. Cook, stirring frequently, until nuts are golden brown, 2 to 4 minutes. Keep a close watch over the nuts; they can burn quickly once they begin to brown. Transfer nuts to a bowl while still warm and salt them lightly.

Brush a medium oval baking dish - approximately 6-inch by 10-inches - with olive oil. Spread 1/4 cup of tomato sauce in the bottom of the dish. Lay 1/3 of the eggplant slices in a single layer over the sauce, covering as much surface area of the bottom of the dish as possible. Spoon 1/2 the meat evenly over eggplant. Pour 1/3 of the remaining tomato sauce evenly over meat. Sprinkle with 1/3 of the pine nuts. Layer again with eggplant, meat, tomato sauce and pine nuts. Finish with a third layer of eggplant and cover with the remaining tomato sauce, sprinkling remaining pine nuts on top.

Pour warm chicken stock around the perimeter of the baking dish. (Sauce will thicken as it bakes.) Cover pan with foil and bake for 90 minutes. Remove foil and top eggplant evenly with mozzarella. Start cooking the rice; bake casserole uncovered for approximately 20 minutes, or until the cheese is bubbling and golden. It should be done about the same time as the rice. Serve warm in deep bowls over fluffed rice.

Serves 4.

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