Eggplant & Sausage Casserole

Sunday, October 28, 2012

What is it about the weather getting cooler that just screams for a good casserole? Wait, before you go running in the opposite direction...this ain't your mama's casserole. No soggy vegetables, canned tuna, dried out cubes of cooked chicken or cream of mushroom soup around here! In fact, this Eggplant & Sausage Casserole reminded me more of a flavorful lasagna then anything else, sans noodles. I've temporarily set aside my love for coconut oil, Latin & Asian cuisine, and southern fare for uncharted territory, as far as this blog goes. I've recently fallen in love with Italian food again. Also, pork (gasp!) but I'll delve into that on another post. The simplicity of using fresh, wholesome ingredients, the rich family traditions intertwined in the dishes, and yes, all that garlic & olive oil...what's not to love? One of my favorite cooking shows to watch lately has been Lidia's Italy which can be found on Create (public broadcasting.) I love Lidia Bastianich's no-frills approach to cooking and the way her dishes tell a story about her family's Italian-American heritage. She also does a great job not just showcasing delicious recipes, but in teaching some basic Italian cooking techniques, which I really appreciate as a viewer.

The other day my friend and I were chatting about my recipes and she asked where I get my ideas from. Literally, everywhere! The shows I watch, the recipes I read online, the commentary I see on social networks, the produce I find at the market, my own family's traditions, my feelings and emotions at the all collides to create recipes, often when I least expect them. This casserole came together rather organically on a regular old work night. Italian sausage, peppers & onions were a no-brainer but I wanted to take that a little further. I was going to make a stuffed eggplant dish but the Japanese eggplants I had were far too skinny to entertain that idea, so the casserole was born. I decided instead of stuffing the eggplant, I'd layer the slices in a dish in between a hearty meat sauce and of course, a little cheese. Since it then started to remind me more of the lasagnas I usually make, I thought the goat cheese would be an interesting replacement for a typical ricotta cheese spread (also, my sister recently emailed me an awesome recipe for goat cheese pizza, which I hope to share soon, so that was on my mind!)  Finally, my basil had gone bad in the fridge so I was left with mint leaves - but since mint & eggplant happen to go beautifully together, this was actually a blessing in disguise and I ran with it.

Now, here comes my official apology for all the "purists" out there (I can almost see my Italian friend cringing before I say this, ha.) I cheated and used a jar of prepared tomato sauce. There, I said it. I'm human. I also refused to run out and buy tasteless Publix tomatoes just for the sake of making a recipe from scratch, when I had perfectly good jars of tomato sauce in my pantry. Frankly, Barilla makes an awesome line of tomato sauces made from natural ingredients (pureed tomatoes thank you, no paste) so this is one affordable brand I will gladly endorse. Yes, there are quite a few organic homestyle tomato sauces out there, and if you're willing to shell out $6 or more go right ahead...that's a bit much for one dish in my budget. So when you're stocking your pantry next time, keep Barilla in mind.  Now, let's get into this recipe!

Eggplant & Sausage Casserole

1/2 lb Sweet Italian sausage, removed from casing
4 small Japanese eggplants (or 1-2 Aubergine eggplants)
1 red bell pepper
1 yellow bell pepper
1 yellow onion
5 cloves garlic
1/2 tsp crushed red pepper
1/2 c. chopped fresh mint leaves, divided
1 jar Barilla Tomato & Basil tomato sauce
8 oz. fresh goat cheese, softened
2 tbsp milk or cream
1 egg yolk
Juice & zest of 1 lemon
1/2 c. Italian breadcrumbs (or plain breadcrumbs + 1 tsp dried Italian herbs)
1/4 c. grated Parmesan cheese
1/2 c. shredded Mozzarella cheese
Extra-virgin olive oil
Kosher salt, to taste
Black pepper, to taste

Servings: 4 as a side dish; 2 as main course
Prep Time: 30 min
Cook Time: 20 min
Equipment Needed: Large deep skillet, small casserole dish, cookie sheet & parchment paper

Preheat oven 400°.  Slice Japanese eggplants 1/2 inch thick and on a bias (at an angle, this increases surface area as opposed to slicing them straight across.) If you are using standard Aubergine eggplants, slice them into rounds and depending on the size of your dish, possibly in half again. Lay out your eggplant slices in a single layer on parchment paper. Brush lightly with olive oil and sprinkle with a pinch of kosher salt and black pepper. If you have non-stick olive oil spray, it works great for this application too instead of brushing the oil.

*Side Note - I switched to kosher salt (after using sea salt for years) and really like the texture & flavor! I won't say one is better than the other, but I have found that it's a little easier to control salt in my recipes by keeping a small dish of kosher salt nearby to add a pinch here and there, vs. shaking or measuring sea salt into my dishes.

Roast eggplant slices for 15 minutes, remove from oven and flip over the slices. Brush with a little oil, sprinkle with kosher salt & black pepper. Return to oven and continue roasting another 10 min or so until the eggplant is slightly tender and just starting to turn golden brown.  Keep in mind the eggplant will continue to cook in the casserole dish later.  Turn down heat to 350°.

While the eggplant cooks, take the time to prep remaining ingredients. By the time it comes out the oven the 2nd time, you should be ready to build your casserole. Dice your onions and bell peppers (or have the kids do this!), thinly slice the garlic cloves, and finely chop the mint leaves.

To start the meat sauce, add a tbsp of olive oil to a skillet heated to medium high. Brown the Italian sausage in your skillet until cooked through out, then remove and set aside.

If there is excess oil in the skillet (more than a couple tablespoons), drain it off before proceeding. Gently fry the garlic slices in the oil just until they start to turn golden. If you don't love garlic as much as I do, you can certainly mince or chop up the cloves, but I'll tell you the big, soft pieces of sweet garlic are absolutely delicious this way.

Add the diced onions and bell peppers to the skillet and saute just until they start to soften up, 2 -3 minutes. Season with a pinch of salt, pepper and the crushed red pepper flakes.

Return the sausage to the skillet and stir in half of the chopped mint leaves.

Reduce heat to low and slowly pour in the tomato sauce. Cover and simmer for 5 - 10 minutes, seasoning to taste with salt & pepper towards the end.

To prepare the goat cheese spread, mix the goat cheese, egg yolk, milk, lemon juice & zest and mint leaves until it is a spreadable consistency. Season with salt & pepper to taste.

Make the breadcrumb topping by combining the breadcrumbs, parmesan cheese, a pinch of salt & pepper, and a good drizzle of olive oil. Toss well and set aside. I didn't have seasoned breadcrumbs, so I used plain Panko crumbs and added plenty of Italian herbs.

Time to build the casserole! In the bottom of your dish, drizzle a little bit of olive oil. Ladle in some of the meat sauce to coat the bottom of the dish. Top with the half of the roasted eggplant slices, overlapping as you lay them down.

Gently spread the goat cheese over the eggplant layer, being sure to cover them completely.

Top the goat cheese with plenty of meat sauce, followed by the remaining eggplant slices. Just like building a lasagna right?

Top the eggplant with a light layer of meat sauce, followed by the shredded mozzarella cheese. I buy the small 1/2 c. bags so I'm not tempted to go overboard!

Finally, cover the casserole with a layer of breadcrumbs and a good drizzle of olive oil. Depending on the size of your dish you may have leftovers, which keep well in the fridge. Any leftover meat sauce is great by itself or over bread or pasta!

Bake your casserole on the middle rack at 350° for approximately 20 minutes, or until heated throughout. The cheese should be bubbly and breadcrumbs golden brown. Allow to rest a few minutes before serving.

The flavors here are just incredible. The sweet sauce, fresh mint, tangy goat cheese and hint of spice all complement the thick slices of tender, roasted eggplant. I really hope this recipe warms you up and brings you some comfort as it did in my home!  Enjoy!

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