Italian Sausage Soup
Two Years Ago: Rosemary-Lemon Grilled Ahi with Pearl Couscous
Winter and Italian comfort food just go together, don't they? Rich tomato sauce, gooey cheese, yum. I recently came across this recipe from Lidia Bastianich, one of my favorite chefs, and was particularly attracted to it because it contains eggplant but it's not fried, which eggplant usually is. And it's elegant in its simplicity - rice, tomatoes, eggplant, cheese - but can be fancied up by adding mild or hot Italian sausage. And it can feed a bunch of hungry people if you double the recipe for a 9x13" pan. Served with a green side salad, it makes a complete and very satisfying meal even though it's vegetarian. And if that's not enough, it makes great leftovers the next day. I could hardly wait to make it.
The only thing that kind of surprised me was the absence of garlic and red pepper flakes, which are absolute Italian classics that Lidia almost always uses. I first tried the recipe by the book before fiddling with it as one of my pet peeves is people who totally change a recipe before they make it and then feel free to tell you why they didn't like the recipe even though they never actually tried the recipe. Grrr. Anyway, as I suspected the recipe seemed to need a little something in terms of fine-tuning which turned out to be the garlic and a pinch of red pepper flakes. If you like heat, feel free to add more red pepper flakes. Or add hot Italian sausage. That's the beauty of a simple and classic recipe - you can make it your own.
You start by cooking arborio rice, the classic rice used for risottos. Arborio rice holds up well to the long baking time without becoming mushy and has a creaminess that combines with the tomatoes. You just need to start an hour or so in advance so the rice has time to cook and then cool.
The eggplants are peeled, sliced lengthwise, and place in a colander for 20 minutes with a decent amount of salt to draw out their moisture. They get a quick rinse and pat dry before going into the sauce to cook. Then it's assembly time - sauce, rice, eggplant, and cheeses in layers much like a lasagna. After it's baked and has rested for a few minutes, you're ready to scoop out big spoonfuls to everyone who's been hanging around the kitchen salivating at the smells for the past hour.
Eggplant and Rice Parmigiana
Notes: Plan ahead – the rice needs to cook and cool before proceeding. If desired, a layer of cooked and crumbled hot or mild Italian sausage may be added. The recipe may be doubled to fit a 9x13” baking pan.
1 cup Arborio rice
1 fresh bay leaf
4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
¾ teaspoon kosher salt, divided, plus more for salting the eggplant
2 small Italian eggplants, about 1 ½ lbs before trimming
2 cloves garlic, minced
½ cup chopped onion
1 (28 ounce) can whole San Marzano tomatoes, crushed by hand
pinch of crushed red pepper flakes
¼ cup loosely packed fresh basil leaves, chopped
2 cup shredded low-moisture mozzarella
½ cup grated Grana Padano cheese (may substitute grated Parmesan)
In a medium saucepan, combine the rice, bay leaf, 1 cup water, 2 teaspoons olive oil, and 1/8 teaspoon salt. Bring to a simmer, cover, and cook until the water is absorbed, about 7 minutes. The rice will still be al dente. Spread the rice onto a sheet pan to cool.
Peel the eggplants in stripes leaving some of the skin, and cut the tops and bottoms off. Cut the eggplants into ¼”-thick lengthwise planks (from top to bottom) and layer the planks in a large colander in the sink. Sprinkle liberally with kosher salt and cover with a bowl that has a diameter slightly smaller than the colander. Weight the bowl with cans to help press the excess liquid from the eggplant. After 20 minutes, rinse and drain the eggplant and pat dry.
Heat the remaining olive oil in a Dutch oven over medium heat. Add the onion and cook until softened, about 5 minutes, adding the garlic after half the time. Add the tomatoes, rinsing out the can or bowl used to crush them with an additional ½ cup of water, and add that to the pot. Season with ½ teaspoon salt and the red pepper flakes and bring to a boil. Place the eggplant slices in the sauce, pushing them down to cover them completely. Cover the pot and simmer 15 minutes. Stir in the basil and remove from heat.
Toss the two cheeses together in a small bowl.
Preheat the oven to 375d.
To assemble, ladle one third of the sauce into a 8x8” or similar baking dish. Remove one third of the eggplant from the sauce and layer it in the dish. Spread half the rice over the eggplant, then layer another third of the eggplant followed by another third of the sauce. Spread with half the cheese. Top with a final layer of rice, eggplant and sauce. Top evenly with the rest of the cheese.
Spray a piece of foil with non-stick spray and cover the dish. Place the dish on a foil-covered baking sheet and baked for 25 minutes. Uncover and bake an additional 25-30 minutes until browned and crusty on top. Let stand 10-15 minutes before serving.