Okay, I know that despite everyone being back to school, people actually showing up to the office again, like, to work, again and Labor Day being but a blip in the rearview mirror that summer isn’t really over yet — it’s hot, the days are still relatively long and, no, I will not put my sandals away. But I can’t help it. As soon as the first day of September, one of my favorite months, arrives, my brain becomes fiercely rooted in all things fall. I grab cardigans on the way out the door. I crave soup. I walk right past the peaches at the market so I can get to the new apples instead. And I turn on the oven again to make deep, bubbly, and more filling meals.
I have mixed feelings about traditional baked pasta dishes. I mean, if you show up to my place with a foil casserole dish of your grandma’s baked ziti, I will probably leap in your arms with relief because I don’t, in fact, always feel like making dinner. We will devour it; everyone will go to bed happy and my son will probably wonder why his mama can’t just cook like that. But I would probably never mix a pound of cheese or tub of ricotta into a casserole dish — it’s all too much, too heavy. And so, when I spied a baked orzo dish, with eggplant and just a modicum of mozzarella from Yotam Ottolenghi (sadly, not from his new cookbook out next month, because I am totally out of order), I knew it was everything I’d ever hoped and dreamed for in baked pasta — balance (there’s are pillows of eggplant throughout), comfort (there are decadent cheese pulls stretching from every forkful, a delightful term I learned from this article) and ease (like the easiest macaroni-and-cheese I know how to make, you don’t even need to pre-boil the pasta).
And then I had to wait four months to make it because it wasn’t eggplant season yet. I won’t lie, it was hard. In the meantime, I made other riffs on it, one with halved cherry tomatoes (too wet) and another with asparagus (eh). This week, it was finally mine and it is absolutely worth the wait. Because this is an Otttolenghi dish, and Ottolenghi didn’t get famous for making things the ordinary way, there are tinier elements in there that I would have never considered adding, like fresh oregano, which works here so well. There’s a bit of lemon zest, which was like a revelation against the tomatoes and oregano. And there’s a little mirepoix, a base of carrots, celery and onion that gives the whole dish a depth that makes you take notice. Together, it feels very September, very late summer while somehow softening the landing of getting back to the grind again. I hope you like it too.
Next week: Eee! I’m going to share a second recipe preview from the cookbook — what I consider the most September-y recipe in it, so I can’t let you miss it just because the book won’t be out until late October. And, I’m going to announce the dates and locations we’ve got lined up so far on The Smitten Out of the Kitchen Book Tour. I can’t wait, and I hope you’re excited too.
One year ago: Roasted Eggplant with Tomatoes and Mint
Two years ago: Grape Foccacia with Rosemary
Three years ago: Corn Bread Salad
Four years ago: Raspberry Breakfast Bars
Five years ago: Spicy Soba Noodles with Shiitakes and Hoisin Barbecue Sauce
[New!]Six years ago: Silky Cauliflower Soup
Baked Orzo with Eggplant and Mozzarella
Adapted from Yotam Ottolenghi
I made a couple changes to this recipe due to personal preferences. The original called for a lot of carrots and celery (4 carrots, 3 celery stalks) but I wanted them to just be a background flavor, not main ingredient. I also chopped them more finely. I used a lot less lemon zest and oregano than was suggested because I was nervous but ended up wishing for more of each so I’ve listed the range from my amount to the suggested one below. Finally, the tomatoes were intended to be sliced and then arranged across the top of the dish as it baked. If you’d like to do it this way, sprinkle them with a teaspoon of dried oregano, salt and pepper before you bake it. I chopped them for two reasons: I wanted the tomatoes inside the dish and I also like the crunchy lid of a baked pasta dish. A layer of tomatoes would protect you from that if you’re not into it. (You probably don’t like pudding skin either, do you? It’s okay. We can still be friends.)
You could easily use whole wheat orzo here, or I suspect, another grain. However, you’ll have to do a bit of fiddling with the broth level to adjust for each one. Grains that take longer than pasta to cook (just about all of them) would probably benefit from par-cooking before they go in.
A few other substitions: I didn’t have any vegetable broth and used water. I felt it wasn’t lacking at all for flavor. If you don’t have fresh tomatoes, you can use canned ones (though fresh will hold up better on top). If you don’t have fresh oregano, use half the amount of dried oregano. If you don’t like or don’t have either, thyme, fresh or dried, would work well here but it’s much stronger in flavor and only half as much should be needed.
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 ratio of foil-on to foil-off time if you don’t like a crunchy pasta lid.) Let rest for 5 minutes before serving.