After a last few sticky, humid days when summer made her (hopefully) final, assertive push into September, it finally feels a bit like fall around here. Very exciting times. Among other things, the beginning of fall means breaking my cozy cashmere sweaters out of storage, plotting my annual viewing of Love Story, and perhaps most exciting of all, heading back into the kitchen to turn on my stove and get down to the business of cooking. And I'm not talking the light summer version of cooking I do when all I can muster are a few salads tossed together and some lightly roasted veggies. I'm talking slowly braised short ribs, lasagna bolognese bubbling over with melted cheese, and my favorite boeuf bourgignon recipe. In short, I can't wait to break out my Dutch ovens and my casserole dishes, crank my oven to 450 degrees, and curl up with a book while the stove does it's alchemy, filling my apartment with good smells.
To make the transition a smooth one, I started out with a lighter, veggie-based casserole dish, found on Smitten Kitchen, adapted from Ottolenghi's book, Plenty. It makes the most out of the early fall greenmarket, when loads of perfect eggplants and tomatoes are still overflowing from the bins, combining them with delicate orzo and warm pulls of fresh mozzarella. Yum. xo
Baked Orzo with Eggplant and Mozzarella
1 large or 2 medium eggplant, cut into 3/4-inch dice
Salt and black pepper
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 medium carrot, peeled and cut into 1/4-inch dice
1 celery stalk, cut into a 1/4-inch dice
1 medium onion, finely diced
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 cup orzo, a rice-shaped pasta, rinsed
1 teaspoon tomato paste
1 1/2 cups low-sodium vegetable stock
1 to 3 tablespoons fresh oregano, chopped
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
4 ounces fresh mozzarella, firmer is better here, cut into 1/3-inch dice
1 1/2 cups parmesan, grated
3 medium tomatoes, diced
Sprinkle your eggplant generously with salt and let it drain in a colander for 30 minutes. Use this time to get the rest of your ingredients ready. After 30 minutes, rinse it well and pat it dry on towels.
Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Heat a large frying pan over medium-high heat. Once hot, add the oil and once the oil is shimmering, add the eggplant. Fry for 8 minutes, stirring pieces occasionally. Using a slotted spoon or spatula, transfer them to paper towels to drain. Add celery and carrots to remaining oil and cook for 3 minutes before adding onion and garlic. Cook together for 5 more minutes on medium heat. Stir in the orzo and tomato paste and cook for two minutes more. Off the heat, add the oregano, mozzarella, parmesan, tomatoes, fried eggplant, lemon zest, 1 teaspoon table salt, many grinds of black pepper and the stock and mix well.
Transfer mixture to an 8×11-inch (about 2 quarts) ovenproof baking dish. Cover with foil and bake 20 minutes, then bake 20 minutes without the foil. (You can increase the ration of foil-on to foil-off time if you don’t like a crunchy pasta lid.) Let rest for 5 minutes before serving.