eggplant, mozzarella, and arborio rice bake

Rice is a sticky subject in our house. There seems to be no end to the Basmati vs. Jasmin tiff. Though we can appreciate the merits of both types of rice, we each prefer the rice we grew up eating. I prefer Basmati, and Martin Jasmine. Sure, a sticky Jasmine rice is necessary- and not to mention delicious- with Asian cuisine, especially if it requires chopsticks. But, Basmati is still better. The fluffiness of a long grain rice is a delight to eat even on its own.

I was mesmerized by a recipe in a recent issue of Bon Appetit. Baked eggplant, in a tomato sauce with melted cheese sounded heavenly. However, the saffron arborio rice gave me pause as did the potential heaviness of the dish. I’ve never cooked arborio rice, let alone baked rice in some saucy concoction. I was intrigued, but not convinced this was for me. Despite our rice differences we can both agree that mushy rice is just not for us. A few days later I saw Smitten Kitchen posted a baked orzo with eggplant and mozzarella recipe. This was a sign. The lightness of the Smitten Kitchen recipe is what sold me. I decided that making a lighter version of the BA recipe following some guidelines from the SK recipe was the way to go.

The hybrid turned out pretty well. My first concern was that the rice would be either over or under done, and it turned out perfect. It wasn’t mushy and held together. Fresh mozzarella of course makes everything better, however the additional pecorino wasn’t necessary. I’m so glad I went with fresh tomatoes instead of tomato sauce as BA recommended. As for Martin, he exclaimed “it’s like pizza rice!” after eating his first bite. I’m still not sure how to take that, but I think that’s a compliment. In the end, we were pleasantly surprised by the rice.

1 large eggplant cubed
2 tbsp butter
½  onion diced
3 cloves of garlic minced
1 tsp oregano
1 tsp basil
1 cup arborio rice
1 tbsp tomato paste
3 medium tomatoes diced
½ lb fresh mozzarella cubed

Cube eggplant into ⅓ inch pieces, toss with olive oil and salt and bake at 400 degrees for 30 minutes. While the eggplant is baking begin to make the rice. Melt the butter in a saucepan, once melted saute onions until soft, add garlic and cook until soft. Add the herbs and stir frequently for about 1 minute. Add the rice and stir to mix and then add 1 cup of water (or broth) and bring to a gentle boil for about 6 minutes then remove from heat. Stir in tomato paste.

Once the eggplant has baked for 30 minutes. Combine ½ of the eggplant and diced tomatoes in an oven proof pan, I used a Dutch oven, layer with ½ of rice mixture, ½ cheese layer remaining eggplant, tomato, rice and top with cheese. These will likely be messy layers and that’s okay. I’m sure I could have just stirred this all together and it would have been fine. Just be sure to end with a layer of cheese.

Bake 20 minutes covered and another 20 minutes uncovered.

Recipe Notes:

I prefer to bake eggplant, but pan frying it would be just fine. I’d recommend a firmer mozzarella, probably one that is not packed in water. Arborio rice was just a bit more expensive than what I would have guessed, so keep that in mind when buying it. I’m not sure if any other rice would have worked as well as arborio, I would hesitate to suggest any substitutions.


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