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.
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Zoe Forestier Morman
The Girl On Fire
I was born and raised in Puerto Rico. I have lived in the United States since I was 15. After high school I decided to study culinary arts. Now, I want to share what I have learned as a chef, while exploring my Puerto Rican heritage through food. Please, join me in the kitchen! It will be fun and most definitely delicious.