Baked Orzo with Eggplant and Mozzarella

About half way through my day today, I thought, “Today is a great day.” I wasn’t doing anything special. I didn’t win anything. I didn’t get any mail. I didn’t have anything epic to look forward to. I was doing the same old, same old.

I literally stopped in my tracks, consciously making an effort to figure out why I was in such a great mood. I was looking out my kitchen window…when suddenly I realized what the source of my contentment was. Sun. The sunlight was streaming in through the window. My face felt warm. I went outside and sat with my chickens. Giving them each lots of snuggle time in the sunshine.

Sigh.

Then I got to feeling adventurous and hungry. When I saw this eggplant recipe a while back, I thought it looked delicious! But what the heck does eggplant taste like? If I didn’t love orzo fiercely, I might not have made it. Boy, oh boy, am I glad I did.

This dish has a wonderful lemony kick that pairs well with the chewy bits of mozzarella disbursed throughout. When I initially picked up the eggplant in the store, I thought I was going crazy. They feel like firm pillows. But I stuck to my guns. It basically has the texture of soft zucchini and a very similar taste. At least when it’s smothered with other ingredients like it is here.

You might notice that I put tomato slices on top of this dish, instead of chopping and mixing it in like the recipe calls for. Well in the original post, she gives you the option. I sprinkled oregano, salt and pepper on top of the tomato. So…do it either way!

Baked Orzo with Eggplant and Mozzarella

From, of course, Smitten Kitchen

1 large (mine was just over 1 1/4 pounds/570 grams) eggplant, cut into 3/4-inch dice
Salt and black pepper
1/4 cup (60 ml) olive oil
1 medium carrot, peeled and cut into 1/4-inch dice
1 celery stalk, in a 1/4-inch dice
1 medium onion, finely diced
3 garlic cloves, minced
8 ounces (225 grams) orzo, a rice-shaped pasta, rinsed
1 teaspoon (6 grams) tomato paste
1 1/2 cups (355 ml) vegetable stock
1 to 3 tablespoons fresh oregano, chopped
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest or more to taste, up to the zest of a whole lemon
4 ounces (115 grams) mozzarella, firmer is better here, cut into 1/3-inch dice
1 1/2 ounces (a generous 1/2 cup or 45 grams) parmesan, grated
3 medium tomatoes, diced

Sprinkle your eggplant generously with salt and let it drain in a colander for 30 minutes. I used this time to get the rest of my ingredients ready. After 30 minutes, rinse it well and pat it dry on towels.

Preheat your oven to 350°F. 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.

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