Baked Orzo with Eggplant and Mozzarella

Last night I made Baked Orzo with Eggplant and Mozzarella from a recipe I found on the blog, Smitten Kitchen. It’s a great early fall dinner option, taking advantage of the bounty of the season—fresh eggplant, carrots, celery, onions and tomatoes. The prep work took a bit longer than anticipated (might be a better weekend option), but when I finally pulled that steamy pan of orzo mixed with flavorful vegetables and gooey mozzarella out of the oven, I realized the dish was well worth my efforts. Not only did it make a filling and unique dinner, the leftovers are fantastic, too.

Baked Orzo with Eggplant and Mozzarella (from Smitten Kitchen, adapted from Yotam Ottolenghi; Serves 4)

1 large eggplant, cut into 3/4-inch dice
Salt and black pepper
1/4 cup 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 orzo, a rice-shaped pasta, rinsed
1 teaspoon tomato paste
1 1/2 cups vegetable stock
1 to 3 tablespoons fresh oregano, chopped (I used 1 tablespoon dried oregano)
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
4 ounces mozzarella cut into 1/3-inch dice
1/2 cup parmesan, grated
3 medium tomatoes, diced

Sprinkle eggplant generously with salt and let it drain in a colander for 30 minutes. After 30 minutes, rinse it well and pat it dry on towels.

Preheat 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 ovenproof baking dish. Cover with foil and bake 20 minutes, then bake 20 minutes without the foil. Let rest for 5 minutes before serving.

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