Baked Orzo with Eggplant & Mozzarella

I finally got around to making my friend Carole’s favorite Smitten Kitchen casserole recipe this week. And I have no idea why I waited so long! It’s delicious and filling without being heavy or overly rich. The lemon zest kicks it up to a bright citrusy flavor that might make it outlast the winter season and make it into my summer rotation (possibly replacing my beloved ratatouille?).

smitten kitchen baked orzo with eggplant and mozzarella

Baked Orzo with Eggplant & Mozzarella
via smitten kitchen

1 large 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 tablespoon grated lemon zest
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

Preheat your oven to 350°F.
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.
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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