I want to give you the recipe that sowed in me the first seeds of Culinary Enthusiasm – the profound idea that cooking and baking could be an indulgent and sensual affair, a thing to do in and of itself, and not a cause for panic. It also inspired an undying love for eggplant, and an important little window started to open.
The recipe comes from Julie Biuso’s Viva L’Italia cookbook, published in New Zealand in 2002. I procured a photocopy of the recipe as a little teenager-y thing, after my best friend’s mum made it one night, to my incredulous delight. It turned out to be a simple enough recipe to follow, and for the first time, standing in front of a stove stirring hot things into other things for nigh on an hour seemed a Perfectly Neat Idea.
Back then, it hadn’t even occurred to me that ‘stock’ could be made by actual humans; it came out of Tetra Pak cartons emblazoned quite un-mysteriously with VEGETABLE, CHICKEN or BEEF. This time round however, we use the very versatile unsalted chicken/pork stock we make for ramen soups (I will tell you about this, I promise you’ll like it) and keep on hand in the freezer. All of the time.
I’ve printed the recipe below with some small changes. And here are some notes: I sprinkle eggplant with salt to make them sweat before doing anything else, leaving them for 20 minutes or until I remember them again (eternally distractible) and then brushing them with oil on both sides, popping them into the oven until they’re browned and squidgy, turning once. Oh my. And you know what would be Cool – dabbling them with crushed garlic and/or herbs from your (or your neighbour’s when they’re not watching) garden, partway through cooking, it would be so tasty, and you would nibble one or two of these rounds before assembly in order to ascertain deliciousness. For one has to be sure sometimes.
When you have all the components at the ready, and the recipe has told you which order it wants you to layer the lovelies, and if you are Freaking Out (because your patience has been unsustainably virtuous til now), it might go more like this: rice, Parmesan, tomato – Shit. Eggplant, ric – shit. Mozzarella, tomato…. rice, Parmesan, tomato – SHIT. Allthegoddamneggplant, Giant rips of Mozzarella, shit rice, efffffing Parmesan – Horrible horrible, I have failed at following Simple Instructions. But the order of appearance has little to do with the Gorgeousness of the final product. For when you pull him out of the oven and see his crispy speckled crust, you will have mellowed significantly.
Tangent: I happened to come across Luisa Weiss’ recipe for braised endives in her recent book of loveliness and realised ashamedly I had never eaten endives before. So I went hunting. In the supermarket. Cluelessly, because of course it’s called something different here. Standing suspiciously in the vegetable aisle, I wondered if Chicorée was in fact the same thing as Belgian Endive (not quite remembering if these concepts were or were not somehow loosely connected in the brain machine). I gambled that they were. And were they indeed. And they turn out to make a fabulously bitter side dish! A fine adversary against the richness of risotto. For greenery, there was adorable Feldsalat (mâche). But lets talk about the main event again quickly before I leave you.
See, it’s such Comfort food: the colours are warm and the textures indulgent. Our oven seemed to be having a hard time and took closer to 25 minutes to heat the risotto through until the mozzarella went all melty. It is also quite important to drink elegantly the wine you used for cooking, while you wait. You chose it with this purpose in mind after all, I’m sure.
Julie Biuso’s Oven-baked Eggplant Risotto
Adapted (a little) from Viva L’Italia. Serves 4 people, or 2 with leftovers (!)
2 medium-large eggplants (aubergines) about 250g each
250ml (1 cup) olive oil for frying
750ml (3 cups) light chicken stock
2 tablespoons olive oil
30gm butter, plus a little extra
1 small onion, finely chopped
2-3 cloves of garlic, crushed
400g can Italian tomatoes, mashed
2 tablespoons finely chopped basil
1/2 teaspoon of salt
Fresh ground black pepper to taste
250g (1 well-packed cup) Italian rice – Arborio, vialone, nano, carnaroli etc
125ml (1/2 cup) dry white wine
50g (1/2 cup freshly grated parmesan (parmigiano reggiano) cheese
150g mozzarella ‘bocconcini’ in whey, drained and cubed
1. Slice the eggplants into large rounds about 5mm thick. Brush both sides of eggplant slices with oil, then lay flat on the baking tray lined with baking paper. Bake for about 20mins, or until tender and brown, in an oven pre-heated to 180 degrees.
2. Make the risotto next. Bring the stock to a simmer, then set the heat so that it is kept very hot, but does not boil and evaporate. Put the olive oil and half the butter in a heavy-based saucepan over a medium heat, add the onion and garlic and sauté until a pale golden colour. Mmm. Tip in the tomatoes and the basil, salt & pepper. Cook gently, uncovered, for 10 minutes, then pour all but ½ cup of the mixture into a bowl and set aside.
3. Add the rice to the tomato mixture in the pan. Increase the temperature to medium-high and stir for 2-3 minutes. Pour in the wine and cook, stirring, until it has nearly evaporated. Start adding the stock slowly a ladleful at the time, stirring all the while until the rice is three-quarters cooked.
4. Layer the ingredients in a greased ovenproof dish (about 16-18cm diameter and 8-9cm deep) in this
order: rice, parmesan cheese, eggplant slices, tomato mixture and mozzarella. Finish with a top layer of rice, then parmesan cheese.
5. The dish can be prepared ahead to the this point, refrigerated, then cooked when required, but it must be brought to room temperature before cooking.
6. Dot the top with butter and bake in an oven preheated to 200 degrees for about 15-20 minutes until it is crisp on the top and heated through. Allow to stand for 5 minutes before serving.