Eggplant and potatoes form the base of this dish and it just so happens that both are coming out of the fields of Antioch Farm into the kitchen right now. New potatoes are a special treat that one can really only experience if you are fortunate enough to know a grower (go to the farmer’s market!) or grow them yourself. A freshly dug potato, with its skin exuding earthy richness and its vibrant crisp flesh—it is no wonder the French refer to them as pomme de terre, “apples from the Earth.”
This wonderful example of exuberance in produce simply cannot be experienced with store-bought potatoes. Things that have been dug, stored, shipped, and shelved tend not to share the same qualities or inspire the same accolades as the real deal farm to table new potato. I urge you to seek out really fresh potatoes for this recipe. You will not be disappointed and may be inspired to plant a few in your garden, as they are extremely easy to grow.
My love of eggplant began some years ago when I started to grow them myself. I must admit, before I was forced to use my harvest—in an effort to waste nothing—I was terrified of the eggplant. I had never been shown how to prepare one, and I had seen it fail in a restaurant when prepared undercooked by an equally ignorant chef (he tried to grill it briefly and serve it mostly raw), who was subsequently ridiculed mercilessly.
Since my first forays into the world of eggplant I have learned of its intrinsic value and ubiquity in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisines, and have been privileged enough to have seen it prepared with much success by a number of cooks and chefs alike, including a lesson on baba ganoush from an old colleague of mine, Madeline, who hails from Beirut, Lebanon.
My love for eggplant stems from its unique flavor profile, gentle bitterness, and creamy texture. I love the way a cube of stewed eggplant will feel like velvet melting in your mouth if prepared properly. As with the potatoes, seek out extremely fresh eggplant at the farmer’s market or produce stand. For this dish I would shy away from the long, thin, deep purple “Japanese” varieties, which are said to be good for pickling, and choose one of the bulbous pear shaped purple/black, magenta or white varieties that were developed in the Mediterranean part of the world.
2 or 3 eggplants, peeled and sliced to ¼ inch thickness
2-3 lbs. of potatoes, peeled and sliced ¼ inch thickness
Olive oil as needed
1 ilb. ground lamb or beef (or cooked white beans if you’re a veggie)
2 cups onion sliced thin (onions are in season at the same time as new potatoes and eggplant)
2-3 cups diced stewed tomatoes
1 Tablespoon chopped garlic
½ teaspoon ground clove
2 bay leaves
¼ teaspoon allspice
Salt and pepper to taste
Bread crumbs as needed
For the béchamel:
1/3 cup butter
2 tablespoons all purpose flour
1 qt milk (or half and half)
1 cup of your favorite cheese, shredded
Roast the eggplant covered in the oven at 375F until it is just tender, about 30 minutes.
Steam or boil the potatoes for about 5 minutes until just tender.
Heat some oil in a pan and brown the meat. If you are using beans, skip the meat and move straight to sautéing the onion. When the meat is browned, sauté the onions and add all the spices. When the mixture becomes fragrant add the tomatoes. Simmer for a moment, season with salt and pepper, then remove it from the heat and save for later.
For the béchamel:
Melt the butter in a saucepan. Whisk in the flour and cook the mixture for a few moments; it is important to keep it moving. Slowly add the cream. Bring this to a simmer and gradually whisk in the cheese. When all of the ingredients are incorporated, pull it off the heat and save for the assembly process.
To make the casserole, oil the bottom of a medium-sized casserole pan. Place an even layer of potatoes on the bottom of the pan. Place a layer of eggplant on top of that. If you have leftover eggplant or potatoes, you can continue to layer or save them for something else (like baba ganoush). Leave room for the tomato and meat layer, which goes on next. To finish it, top the dish with the béchamel and dust it generously with bread crumbs or panko. Bake it in the oven at 350F for 30 minutes until the top is golden brown and crunchy.