I need to stop picking up vegetables from the extras bin. I was nearly caught up this week, but I grabbed a second eggplant and it needed to be cooked. I had picked out an Arabian chickpea-eggplant stew to make, but the flavors were pretty close to the caponata I made earlier (minus the ginger and curry powder), so I was hesitating.
I saw in this week's New York Times Dining section is a profile of Donald Link, a New Orleans chef who is bringing authentic Cajun to New Orleans in contrast to the bastardized version that became popular in the wake of Paul Prudhomme prominence in the 1980's. A couple of his recipes accompanied the article and I was interested in this one:
Eggplant and Merguez Casserole
Adapted from Donald Link
Time: 55 minutes
FOR THE BéCHAMEL:
4 tablespoons butter
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
2 cups whole milk
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper
Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg.
For the casserole:
Olive oil, as needed
1 large (18 to 20 ounces) eggplant, peeled and sliced into
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
9 ounces merguez sausage
12 ounces fontina cheese, grated
6 ounces Parmesan cheese, grated.
1. For the béchamel: In a small saucepan over low heat, melt butter. Add flour and whisk until pale golden, about 5 minutes. Add milk, salt, white pepper and nutmeg, and whisk to combine thoroughly. Cook, whisking frequently, until thickened and smooth, 15 to 20 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside.
2. For the casserole: Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Spread eggplant slices in a single layer on a baking sheet, and thoroughly coat both sides with olive oil and a sprinkling of salt and black pepper. Roast until fully cooked, 12 to 15 minutes, then remove from heat but do not turn off oven. Meanwhile, in a medium skillet over medium-low heat, sauté merguez until browned and fully cooked. Remove from heat and slice into 1/4-inch-thick rounds.
3. Oil an 8-by-11, 2-inch-deep baking dish. Spread one-third of béchamel in baking dish. Top with half the eggplant, then half the fontina and half the merguez. Coat with half of the remaining béchamel. Top with remaining eggplant, fontina and merguez. Spread with remaining béchamel and the Parmesan.
4. Bake until hot, bubbling and lightly browned, 12 to 15 minutes. Allow to rest for a minute or two, then serve.
Yield: 6 servings.
The merguez is north African so I'm assuming it's substituting for some downhome alligator sausage that you can't get outside the bayou. That means I don't have to feel bad about substituting for it since, unsurprisingly, I couldn't find any. Merguez I know is heavily spiced both with hot pepper and other flavors so looking over my options at Publix, I decided on Colombian chorizo. I've never tried it, but it looks like it's got a lot of character.
Next up is the cheese. That's quite a lot of $20/pound cheese there so I decided to compromise a little. I used half proper fontina and half fontinella which I assumed to be closely related. It's actually rather sharper and a somewhat less creamy, although it still melted fine. For the Parmesan I mainly used a young domestic type and suplemented that with a nicely aged authentic Parmigiano Reggiano. The milder taste of taste of the domestic should balance with the sharpness of the fontinella and get me somewhere in the right flavor area.
One other thing worth noting is the instruction to "thoroughly coat both sides [of the eggplant slices] with olive oil. You know as well as I do that eggplant does not coat with oil, it soaks up oil. I realized afterward that he probably meant for me to use one of those olive oil spray pumps. I drizzled and spread the oil as best I could but it didn't really coat and I used a lot more oil than I really wanted to.
Another point is to be careful with the salt. I forgot just how salty all that cheese would be so I was generous on the eggplant and the final dish is a bit over-salted.
That all said, here's the result: A little bit of eggplant and a few pieces of sausage floating in a goopy, tangy, cheesy mess (with a nice crispy top). Just looking at it as it cooled made me break out the lettuce and cherry tomatoes I've been ignoring all week so I could fill up on salad in self-defense.
It turns out the chorizo I chose wasn't a bad match with the eggplant and cheese so it's all rather tasty, but it's eggplant, cheese and sausage so no surprise there.
But it's so heavy it's hard to enjoy. How to lighten it up? Well, first, spraying the eggplant instead of soaking it. I could slice the sausage before frying it to let some of that fat escape. I suppose low fat cheese is an option, but I'm philosophically opposed to such things. Can you make a decent béchamel with 2 percent milk? Beyond that, why not turn it into lasagna? Layers of pasta would space things out a bit. Couldn't hurt to add some onions and peppers too while I'm at it. Any other ideas?