How I love thee, Eggplant! Eggplant is quite versitile. It can be breaded, stewed, baked, grilled, and mashed. Sadly, as much as I like eggplant I do not eat it enough. But I can assure you, my heart goes a flutter when I see it in the supermarket. Here is a nice recipe we make with eggplant in Puerto Rico. Of course, I have given it my own take. So, without much ado, let's jump into the recipe!
To begin, let me say that I do this trick every time I have to fry eggplant. Since the vegetable's texture is like a sponge, it does have a considerable amount of water in it. So, I sprinkle a little bit of salt on the eggplant after I have peeled it and, in this case, sliced it. I let the eggplant sit and "sweat" for about an hour. Once I am ready to bread it, I dab it with paper towels and start the process.
Why do I do this? Because reducing the amount of fluid in the eggplant helps in the breading process. It eliminates the excess liquid that the eggplant would normally render which will prevent it from keeping the breading on. A fellow food writer, Meggan Hill from Culinary Hill, wrote a post on this process and goes further as to why it is a good practice on how to salt eggplant, please click here if you would like to learn more.
The Crust Makes a Difference on this eggplant casserole
So, the source I had found for this eggplant casserole recipe only calls for light dredging of flour. Which is fine, but I wanted to add more texture to the eggplant. So I opted to do the classical breading technique of flour, egg wash, and breadcrumbs. I do have another reason for this. This eggplant casserole requires layers of eggplant with meat and cheese, like a lasagna. If I only lightly dredge the eggplant in flour, by the time the dish is done it the eggplant will be soggy. Remember, eggplant is like a sponge and it will absorb most of the liquid. The breadcrumb crust, which I used panko, adds crunch and texture, even to the deeper layers. I ate leftovers of this dish the next day and it still had some crunch to it. A tasty surprise!
In the caption to the picture above I describe each component and the direction of use. As for the direction, this does not mean that every time you set up a breading station you will set it up right to left. I set it this way so that right after the final stage of breading in panko, the product goes straight into the frying pan.
I season each breading element, especially when working with flour, which will absorb flavors and mute them, then you end up with a rather bland product. Seasoning as you go makes each component of the whole dish be able to stand on it's own. Using milk for the egg wash instead of water, also adds to the texture and overall flavor of the final product. Remember, always look to add flavor and dimension to your food. Makes it that much more interesting.
I would also like to take a moment to go over the other two components of this recipe; the meat and the cheese.
I used ground beef, but purposely bought a small pack of ground beef. Along with the ground beef, I bought a large pack of pre-sliced mushrooms. I like to add mushrooms to meat fillings for a few reasons; first, it adds bulk and I get more veggies, therefore, I do not have to buy as much meat. I don't normally eat much beef. When I was a teen I befriended a girl from India, Reena. Out of respect to her, I stopped eating meat, and now I seldom eat beef. As a matter of fact, I was not eating beef for decades until I realized I was not eating it. I guess I never missed it.
You might guess, the second reason I add mushrooms to my meat fillings and sauces, is flavor. I am always looking for ways to add more flavor to your food. Mushrooms add earthiness and smokiness. I did not chopped up the mushrooms for this dish, but mincing the mushrooms will hide them into the sauce and have guests guessing what the "secret" ingredient is.
and The Cheese
Cheese. Normally a dish like this would call for provolone, mozzarella, or even Fontina cheeses. This time we are using Swiss. Swiss cheese is a casual cheese, along with Gouda, at the Puerto Rican table. Many recipes were written with Swiss cheese as the gooey choice. I decided not to deviate from the original on this selection. I wanted to taste the outcome and see if it matched my thoughts. Needless to say, it was a great choice, why? Because of flavor, lol.
Swiss cheese has a particular taste, which divides many people into either you like it, or you don't. I was for the longest time an "I don't like Swiss" person, but I have mindfully learned to enjoy it and take advantage of its distinct taste.
The two final elements for this eggplant casserole recipe. One of them is what makes this casserole Puerto Rican.
Tomatoes and Olives. Let's talk tomatoes, I prefer canned only because canned tomatoes are ready. What I mean is, fresh tomatoes when cooked will shed their skin into the final product. Canned tomatoes are skinless, so you will not find bits of tomato skin rolled into the sauce. Also, canned tomatoes add more flavor whereas fresh tomatoes may borrow flavor from its surrounding ingredients. Final tidbit on tomatoes. Canned tomatoes have higher levels of lycopene which is a powerful antioxidant. Lycopene is present in fresh tomatoes, but the process of cooking the tomatoes increases the levels of lycopene. So, whenever possible, I use canned tomatoes.
As for olives, only the green, pimento stuffed will do for the typical Puerto Rican dish. These are called Manzanilla Olives. Whole, sliced, or diced, these olives give our dishes that special flavor that, to me, takes me back to the island.
I hope you like making this variation of Eggplant Casserole. I know I had a great time making it, and loved eating it. It has a great flavor profile, great crunch factor, and enough gooeyness to play with. Please let me know in the comments if you make this wonderful recipe or if you have any questions.
Here are a few recipes you might enjoy!
Keto Eggplant Meat Pie, Pastelon de Berenjena
- 2 tablespoons of olive oil
- 1 Cup onion peeled and diced
- 1 tablespoon garlic paste
- ½ pound Lean ground beef
- 1 tablespoon tomato paste
- ¼ Cup beef broth
- 2 tablespoon Manzanilla green olives optional, this is what makes this dish more Puerto Rican, to me.
- 1 tablespoon of sofrito
- 1 large eggplant
- 2 eggs
- ¼ pound of Swiss cheese ¼-inch thick
- Cut both ends of the eggplant. Stand vegetable on bottom end and slide the knife between the skin and the meat of the eggplant peeling a the skin off the vegetable.
- Cut the eggplant while standing up on its bottom into ¼-inch thick slices. Place the slices of eggplant on a baking sheet set up with a cooling rack. Sprinkle salt over both sides of the eggplant and allow the eggplant to render it’s moisture.
- While waiting for the eggplant begin cooking the meat filling. Heat a saute pan or skillet. Once hot add olive oil. Allow the oil to warm up, then add onions. Cook onions until soft.
- Add a table spoon of garlic paste, to the onions. Sauté quickly and add ground meat. Add adobo and paprika. Cook through until meat has no pink meat.
- Add sliced olives, and a tomato paste. Mix paste thoroughly into meat. Add a splash of beef broth to keep the meat moist but not soggy or soupy. Let meat rest and set aside.
- Heat about an inch to inch and a half of oil in a deep frying pan. While the oil heats up dab dry the eggplant with paper towels.
- Drop a few eggplants into the oil to par fry them. We are looking for a golden color, but not cooked all the way through.
- Remove the eggplants and set on paper towel lined plate. Continue frying the rest of the eggplant until all the eggplant is par cooked.
To Assemble Meat Pie
- To assemble the meat pie coat a cake pan or cast iron skillet with a small amount of butter. Line eggplant on the bottom of the pan and then up the sides of the pan. Feel free to cut the slices of eggplant into smaller slices to that pieces fit better, but keep wider pieces for both the bottom and top of the pie.
- Arrange with Swiss cheese on top f the eggplant. Once the cheese melts it will bind with the eggplant at the bottom. Sealing any openings left out by the organic shape of the eggplant. You may also brush egg wash on to the eggplant sides as well as the cheese.
- Dump the cooked ground meat into the lined pan. Allow about half inch to the top of the pan empty to give room to the cheese, eggs if using, and eggplant. If any left over meat is left, reserve to make a delicious meat sauce on a later day.
- If you choose to add the hard boiled eggs, add them over the ground meat. Otherwise, line the meat with sliced Swiss cheese. Cover the cheese with rest of seared eggplant and brush eggplants with rest of eggwash.
- Bake in oven for about 20 minutes. Allow dish to rest for about 10 minutes cut and serve. You may cut it into pie slices or you may cut it into squares which could render nine to 16 slices depending on the cuts.
- Substitute eggplant with zucchini or squash if you or a family member does not like eggplant.
- Consider using a baking sheet under the pan holding the casserole. This is a cleaning tip more so than a cooking tip. If the dish becomes greasy or watery and overflows it will spill on to the baking dish and not the oven floor.
- Shredded cheese vs Sliced Cheese. In my opinion a sliced cheese is better for this application because of the surface area of the cheese allows it to sustain it’s body over the meat, instead of loosing itself as it melts into the meat. But that is just my opinion. A thickly shredded cheese would probably do the same.
- Have all the ingredients portioned and prepared before beginning to cook. Slice and salt the eggplant well in advanced, have the hard boiled eggs ready and sliced, Mae with the cheese. Especially is you are working with little ones to make this dish. Dividing the tasks among family members also helps with bonding and making this recipe fun and easy.