Oh people. I do love this casserole. SO.MUCH. You know how some casseroles are dense and heavy? Good for girding ourselves for cold weather! But this casserole is light and almost airy in texture, even though it's packed with late-summer and early fall vegetables like eggplant and tomato. Good for summer!
But what really makes this casserole special is how every bite includes so many different textures and flavors, tiny cubes of creamy eggplant and slivers of briney olive and sun-dried tomatoes and tiny burst of salty capers. And did I mention goat cheese? Yeah, goat cheese. For the record, I also buried chicken in the casserole, not too much, just enough to make it a substantial supper. But don't worry, the chicken is optional, this makes one mean, mean Meatless Monday vegetarian supper.
For my book club last week, I served it with Tomato Platter with Olives & Feta and a big summer salad. Sumptuous, that supper!
RECIPE for BAKED ORZO with EGGPLANT, OLIVES, SUN-DRIED TOMATO & GOAT CHEESE
Oven time: 75 minutes (including rest time)
Time to table: 2 1/4 hours (can be made ahead)
Makes 12 cups
1/4 cup olive oil
1 large eggplant (about 1-1/2 pounds, 680g), diced small
1 red bell pepper, diced small
1 red onion, slivered vertically
3 cloves garlic, slivered
8 ounces (225g) uncooked orzo pasta
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1/2 cup (50g) sun-dried tomatoes, diced small
1/2 cup (80g) pitted kalamata olives, halved
1/4 cup (35g) drained capers
Zest of a lemon (don't skip)
2 teaspoons dried oregano
1 teaspoon table salt
Generous grind of pepper
Cooked Orzo Mixture
8 ounces (225g) chopped cooked chicken, optional
4 ounces goat cheese, torn in bits
1/2 cup (45g) grated Parmesan
FINISH IN THE OVEN
1 1/2 cups good stock (vegetable or chicken)
Good tomatoes, sliced thin
Salt & pepper
Heat oven to 350F/180C.
STOVETOP In a large, heavy Dutch oven or skillet, heat the olive oil until shimmery. Add the eggplant, in batches if needed, and toss to coat with fat. Let saute, sprinkling with salt and stirring occasionally, until eggplant is fully cooked and flavorful. Give it a taste, you want to taste "savory". Set the eggplant aside (for a head start, add it to a large mixing bowl that's large enough to collect the entire casserole) and let cool. Add the bell pepper, red onion and garlic to the same skillet (you may need to add more oil or water if the skillet is day), sprinkle with salt and let cook just until soft. Stir in the orzo and tomato paste, cook until tomato paste melts. (Don't worry, the orzo doesn't cook here, it cooks in the oven.)
MIX OFFHEAT Now start adding the good stuff! Gently stir together all the ingredients except the cheeses, be gentle but make sure they're mixed really well. Now stir in the goat cheese and parmesan, it'll be slightly messy but go for it.
FINISH IN THE OVEN Transfer mixture to a large oven-safe casserole dish (mine is about 9x12x2), cover with stock. Arrange the tomato slices on top, overlapping slightly. Sprinkle with oregano, salt, pepper and Parmesan. Cover with foil and bake for 30 minutes. Uncover and bake another 30 minutes. Cover loosely and let rest for 30 minutes.
MAKE-AHEAD TIPS This is a wonderful make-ahead casserole! Me, I'd mix it early in the day for serving that night but the night before would probably work as well. However – don't add the stock until just before the casserole is going into the oven, the pasta will suck up the liquid and turn all watery/mushy. Instead, refrigerate the casserole without the stock, add it later, just before popping into the oven. If there's room between the tomato slices to pour the stock in between the rows, you can even add the tomato slices ahead of time.
LEFTOVERS Reheats beautifully. It's even good cold, like a really good pasta salad.
VARIATIONS I love this casserole! I'd definitely keep adding more vegetables, chopped artichoke strikes me as right, hmm, cooked mushrooms too, even bits of par-cooked asparagus, those would be pretty on top too! Oh, zucchini, of course! And while it would step away from the Mediterranean theme, how about tomatillo and okra? What makes this casserole special is that every bite includes so many different textures and flavors.
ALANNA'S TIPS & KITCHEN NOTES
SO MUCH OIL? My usual style is to use just one tablespoon olive oil but here, 4 tablespoons was not too much. I'm using an All-Clad all-metal Dutch oven now, it's fabulous but I do miss my Berndes non-stick Dutch oven and intend to replace it soon. Then? Yes, I think a single tablespoon would be fine.
EGGPLANT Next time, I'll roast the diced eggplant in the oven, say 400F/200C until beginning to crisp up, maybe 15-20 minutes. In fact, hmmm, I think you could roast the eggplant, red pepper, red onion and even the garlic all at once. Even easier!
WHAT IS ORZO? Orzo is that miniature sized pasta shaped like a grain of rice. Check the pasta section of good grocery stores, Trader Joe's has an okay product too, although I find it cooks a little soft for my taste. Could you use another small pasta like tiny tubes of ditalini? Yes, I think so! I wouldn't use a large pasta, however.
SUN-DRIED TOMATOES Even during the height of summer tomatoes, I chose sun-dried tomatoes for this casserole because they're packed with more flavor and won't water down the casserole. I love-love-love the bags of sun-dried tomatoes at Trader Joe's, they're soft and pliable and I find myself adding a small handful to one thing after another. If your sun-dried tomatoes are dry and hard, you'll want to "reconstitute" them by soaking in water first, you'll likely need to chop them too. It's summer, after all, so to use fresh tomatoes I'd roast them first, like the wonderful Roasted Roma Tomatoes.
CHEESE Goat cheese is especially tangy/creamy/melty in this casserole but feta works, so would something like Boursin.
TOMATO SLICES The second time I made this, I used quite-small garden tomatoes. I overlapped the slices slightly in three rows but left room between the rows, letting the goodies below peak out from underneath. It was a great look! Plus I think that people appreciate the preview of what's underneath.
BROILER? To make the top a little prettier, next time I'll put the casserole under the broiler for 2 to 3 minutes after it's baked for an hour.
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MORE FAVORITE CASSEROLE RECIPES~ Afghan Eggplant & Tomato Casserole (Borani Banjan) ~
~ Zucchini Timbale with Cheese (Crustless Zucchini Cheese Pie) ~
~ Creamy Spinach with Artichokes ~
~ more casserole recipes ~
from A Veggie Venture
~ Tourlou Tourlou (Greek Baked Vegetables) ~
~ Afghan Chicken & Rice Casserole (Kabeli Palau) ~
~ Easy Green Chile Chicken Enchiladas ~
from Kitchen Parade, my food column
SEASONAL EATING: THIS SAME WEEK ACROSS THE YEARSTurkey on Pita with Tomatillo Sauce Veggie Burritos with Cilantro Sauce (< Meatless Monday pick!) Tomato-Tomato Roasted Nopalito Tomatillo Salsa Pepper & Tomato Salad Baked Parmesan Tomatoes Tomato Gazpacho (< every summer, so good!) OOO Zesty Green Beans Summer Borscht Roasted Baby Eggplant Halves with Herbs Old Liz's Old-Fashioned Cucumber Salad (< Pinterest loves this!) Homemade Blueberry Vinaigrette Tomato Platter with Olives & Feta (< easy + pretty!) Cool-as-a-Cucumber Avocado Soup Chilled Zucchini Soup Shooters Roasted Eggplant with Pomegranate & Buttermilk-Yogurt Sauce (< more eggplant!)
famous asparagus-to-zucchini Alphabet of Vegetables.
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