Do you have a favorite vegetable? I do. Surprising even to me it's not tomatoes, which I do adore. Instead I'm going to go with eggplant, mostly because I love its adaptability. True, you can't eat eggplant raw. But, oh, the dishes you can prepare with them when cooked. Fry them, bake them, roast them, marinate them... the list goes on and on. And you find them in so many cultures around the world, which adds even more to their versatility and the range of flavor profiles you can create. Right now I have peeled and sliced eggplants tossed in salt and draining excess moisture in preparation for my favorite Italian marinated eggplant appetizer that I like to have in my fridge. On my shopping list is my favorite baba ganoush that I buy at Balboa International Market. I often stir fry eggplant with oyster sauce to top on brown rice. I'll cook it in coconut milk with spices to make a curry.
And in my refrigerator is the beautiful Baked Eggplant and Bell Pepper in Ricotta casserole that I made a couple of days ago. I love this dish. It's got some wonderful elements accompanying the sliced, roasted eggplant: roasted, peeled red and yellow peppers; a tomato sauce I had in the freezer, rich with spicy Italian chicken sausage and mushrooms; and lots of garlic mixed into the ricotta, parmesan, egg mixture. Oh, and I don't want to forget the panko mixed with grated parmesan that tops it all off.
All of these ingredients are layered into a deep 9 X 9-inch ceramic baking dish and baked at high heat for about half an hour. It comes out of the oven brown and bubbling from the cheese. Cut into it and you have layers of sublime flavors all complementing each other. Pair it with a salad and serve with a crisp white wine. Make it ahead and freeze before baking or freeze baked slices well wrapped to enjoy later.
Baked Eggplant and Bell Pepper in Ricotta
Serves 4 to 6
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil plus about a teaspoon for the baking dish and to drizzle on the casserole
2 large eggplants, sliced lengthwise, about ½ inch thick
3 bell peppers (any color but green, which is too bitter)
15 ounces ricotta
3 cloves garlic, minced
½ cup grated parmesan cheese plus ¼ cup reserved for topping
1 tablespoon fresh oregano, minced
1 tablespoon fresh rosemary, minced
1 teaspoon sea salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
3 cups marinara sauce
¼ cup panko crumbs
1. Preheat oven to 450°.
2. Place eggplant slices on two half sheet baking pans and brush lightly on both sides with olive oil. Roast for about 25 minutes, turning slices over halfway. The eggplant slices should be golden brown. Remove from oven and set aside.
3. While the eggplant is roasting, roast the peppers on your stovetop or alongside the eggplant until all sides are blackened. Remove and place in a brown paper bag with the top rolled up to steam the skins off the peppers. Wait about 10 minutes and remove the peppers and peel the skins off. Slice in half and remove the core and seeds. Then slice into segments and set aside.
4. In a medium bowl mix together the ricotta, eggs, garlic, parmesan cheese, herbs, salt, and pepper.
5. To put the casserole together, brush an 8-inch baking dish with olive oil. Then layer half of the eggplant on the bottom of the dish. Follow that with half of the marina sauce and a layer of the peppers. Spread with half of the ricotta mixture. Repeat these layers and end with the ricotta mixture. Sprinkle the top with the ¼ cup reserved parmesan cheese and the panko crumbs. Drizzle with olive oil and bake for 25 to 30 minutes or until the casserole is bubbling and golden brown. Let cool about 10 minutes before serving.