Baked Eggplant with Peppers, Tomato, and Mozzarella

Melanzane al Forno con Peperoni, Pomodoro, e Mozzarella

Insofar as it is baked with tomato, basil, and mozzarella, this dish resembles eggplant parmigiana. It diverges, however, from the classic parmigiana version in several significant ways. There is a lusciously fleshy quality to the consistency of the eggplant itself because it is cut in half instead of in slices. In the parmigiana style the eggplant is fried before the dish is assembled and baked; here it is sautéed with slivers of garlic buried within it. When you are slicing and frying eggplant it’s advisable to steep the slices in salt before cooking so that they shed their bitter juices. Whole eggplants, on the other hand, or even eggplant halves, seem to purge themselves of their astringency as they cook, so I have omitted that preliminary salting step. And I have put in a peeled bell pepper to add a secondary layer of flavor. To obtain a full measure of the pepper’s distinctive aroma and sweetness, you must free it of its skin by peeling it raw as the recipe describes.

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Ingredients

  • 2 eggplants, about pounds each
  • 4 to 7 garlic cloves, depending on their size, peeled and sliced very thin
  • Salt
  • Black pepper ground fresh
  • cup vegetable oil
  • 1 red or yellow bell pepper
  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • cup canned Italian plum tomatoes, drained and cut up, or fresh, ripe tomatoes, peeled and cut up
  • ½ pound mozzarella, cut into thin slices
  • 8 or 10 basil leaves
  • ¼ cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
  • 2 tablespoons fine, dry, unflavored breadcrumbs
  • tablespoons butter

An oven-to-table baking dish

Method

  1. Wash the eggplants, slice off their green stems, and cut them lengthwise in half. With a sharp paring knife, deeply score the flesh side of the eggplant in a crosshatched diamond pattern. Cut down close to the skin, but not through it. Slip some of the garlic slices into the cuts, about 6 or 7 slices into each eggplant half. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.
  2. Choose a lidded skillet or sauté pan that can accommodate the eggplants in a single layer. Put in the vegetable oil. Arrange the eggplant halves in the pan with their flesh side facing up, turn on the heat to medium, and cover the pan. Cook until the skin side begins to wrinkle and soften, then turn the eggplant over. When the flesh side becomes colored a golden brown, turn them over again. Continue cooking until the eggplant flesh feels thoroughly tender and creamy when tested with a fork.
  3. Using a slotted spoon or spatula, lift the eggplants out of the pan and place them, flesh side facing up, in the baking dish.
  4. Turn on the oven to 400°.
  5. Split the pepper open; remove the core and all seeds; and, using a swivel-bladed peeler, skin the pepper raw. Cut it lengthwise into strips.
  6. Put the 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a little saucepan, add the remaining garlic slices, turn on the heat to medium, and cook the garlic, stirring occasionally, just until it becomes colored a pale gold.
  7. Put in the pepper and cook it for 2 or 3 minutes, then add the cut-up tomatoes, salt, and several grinding of black pepper. Cook at a steady simmer, stirring from time to time, until tomatoes lose all their watery liquid and turn into a dense sauce.
  8. Cover the eggplants in the baking dish with mozzarella slices, sprinkle the basil leaves over the mozzarella, then top with the tomato and pepper sauce, distributing it uniformly over each eggplant half. Over the sauce, evenly sprinkle the grated Parmesan and the bread crumbs. Dot with butter, and place the dish in the uppermost level of the preheated oven. Bake for 20 minutes and and let the dish rest 15 minutes or so, until it is no longer very hot, before serving.

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