Baked Orzo with Eggplant and Mozzarella

Hey there, remember me?

It’s been a while, I know.  This blog has been gathering dust this summer, along with its writer’s kitchen.  Part of the reason is because of this little bugger, who for a while was doing an excellent job of keeping me on my toes.  Now, at sixteen weeks old, she’s not having nearly as many accidents and therefore can occasionally be left to her own devices.  Which sometimes means assuming the role of my shadow in the kitchen.  It’s fun to turn around and find a little puppy staring up at you, wondering what it is you’re chopping so vigorously on the cutting board and, more importantly, why you’re not sharing.

And part of the reason — what I’d say is the main reason — for this blog going dark is that I went through a big cooking dry spell.  It wasn’t only that I wasn’t seeing anything I really wanted to make, but also that the thought of washing and chopping and mixing and cleaning wasn’t appealing at all, not when I could be out enjoying the summer sun, teaching Emma to play fetch, or curled up reading Game of Thrones (my latest addiction).  Cooking became a burden, not something fun I wanted to do.  So I dined out a lot.  And made a lot of spaghetti.

Then I saw this recipe, and it was intriguing enough to send me to the grocery store for more than just milk, water, and ice cream sandwiches (don’t judge).  Baked orzo?  That was something I hadn’t seen before.  And it just so happened that I had a bag of sweet potato orzo in my pantry, a relic from a trip to the farmer’s market at the Grove last March, which I had been wondering what to do with other than make some sort of soup or pasta salad.

You know where this is going.  I’m so glad I decided to break out the pots and pans, because this is one fantastic dish.  The globs of melted mozzarella make it feel indulgent, but it really isn’t because it’s comprised mostly of vegetables.  It’s a pasta dish, but it feels like you’re eating something lighter.  It’s a perfect dish for the cusp of fall, and it has, I’m glad to say, made me want to ease my way back into cooking.

*Emma would like me to state that she helped write this entry (by, ahem, minimizing my browser so that I freaked out for a minute and thought she’d deleted the post).

Baked Orzo with Eggplant and Mozzarella

From Smitten Kitchen

Serves 4-6

1 large eggplant, cut into 3/4-inch dice
Salt and black pepper
1/4 cup 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
8 ounces orzo
1 teaspoon tomato paste
1 1/2 cups vegetable stock, chicken stock/broth, or water
1 to 3 tablespoons fresh oregano, chopped, or half that amount of dried oregano
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest or more to taste, up to the zest of a whole lemon
4 ounces mozzarella, cut into 1/3-inch dice
1 1/2 ounces parmesan, grated
3 medium tomatoes, diced

Sprinkle eggplant generously with salt and let it drain in a colander for 30 minutes.  Meanwhile, prepare remaining ingredients.  After 30 minutes, rinse eggplant well and pat it dry on towels.

Preheat oven to 350°F.

Heat a large frying pan over medium-high heat. Once hot, add oil.  Once the oil is shimmering, add 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. Reduce to medium heat and cook together for 5 more minutes. Stir in the orzo and tomato paste and cook for two minutes more.

Remove pan from heat and 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. (Adjust the ratio of foil-on vs. foil-off time depending on how crunchy you want the top layer of pasta.) Let rest for 5 minutes before serving.

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Filed under Pasta, Savory

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