I must admit, I have a slight fetish for eggplants. They’re so sleek and sexy, dense and shiny. Every year I’m amazed and elated when they first appear in our garden—it boggles my mind that we could grow something so magnificent (it’s actually the same feeling that I get when I look at Ella—is it wrong to compare my daughter to a vegetable?). A fresh eggplant should feel heavier than it would seem with a weight that belies its size, and there’s no need for salting it before cooking. We’ve been grilling eggplants nearly every week to toss into salads and pasta, or to eat alone as a side dish. Lately I’ve been craving something a little more substantial (hello, bubby—see previous post) and decided it was time to let our purple beauties take center stage.
With a pound of ground beef at my disposal, I layered slices of grilled eggplant with a cinnamon-scented meat sauce, crumbled feta cheese and fresh mint. I then popped the whole shebang into the oven for a few minutes to heat through and lightly toast on top. If a vegetable gratin were to have an affair with a lasagna of Greek descent, this would be its offspring.
We served the dish (I’m still having trouble finding an adequate name—I can’t bear to call it a casserole) with simple steamed ears of corn. Even Ella, who unfortunately doesn’t share my passion for eggplants, went in for seconds (even if she did pick out some of the eggplant for me to eat, and not just to be nice). It’s supremely comforting and yet surprisingly light. Whatever you call it, it’s a lovely summertime supper.
Grilled Eggplant & Beef Bake
- 3 medium-to-large eggplants (3 ½ - 4 lbs total), sliced lengthwise ¼ inches thick
- ½ cup extra virgin olive oil , divided, plus more for baking dish
- 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
- Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 1 medium onion , finely diced
- 2 large cloves garlic , minced
- 1 pound 90% lean ground beef (preferably grass fed)
- ½ teaspoon cinnamon
- ½ cup white wine
- 1 pound plum tomatoes (about 4 large tomatoes), seeded and diced
- 8 ounces feta , crumbled
- ¼ cup chopped mint
- Preheat a grill to medium-high. Place the eggplant slices in a large bowl and toss with the olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Season with salt and pepper. Grill the eggplant slices, flipping once, until they acquire nice grill marks on both sides, about 6-8 minutes total. Transfer the slices to a baking sheet and cover tightly with foil to allow the eggplant to steam. (You can also cook the eggplant in the oven. Line the slices on baking sheets, overlapping slightly, and bake in a 425˚F oven for 15 minutes, or until tender.) Do Ahead: The eggplants can be cooked several hours in advance and left at room temperature, or refrigerated overnight.
- Preheat the oven to 425˚F with a rack in the upper third.
- In a large skillet, melt the butter over medium-high heat. Add the onion, and cook until tender, about 4 minutes. Stir in the garlic and cook 30 seconds or so, until fragrant. Add the ground beef and season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally and breaking up any chunks, until the meat is browned, about 5 minutes. Sprinkle in the cinnamon and let cook 30 seconds. Pour in the wine and simmer until the liquid is nearly evaporated (3-4 minutes). Add the diced tomatoes, and season with more salt and pepper. Simmer until the tomatoes are softened, about 3 minutes. Taste and add more salt and pepper as needed.
- Lightly oil a 13x9-inch baking dish. Spread a scant cup of the meat sauce in the bottom of the pan. Layer half of the eggplant slices over the sauce. Pour half of the meat sauce over top and spread in an even layer. Sprinkle with half of the feta and three-quarters of the mint. Layer the rest of the eggplant slices on top, followed by the remaining meat sauce and feta. Bake on a rack in the upper third of the oven for 10-15 minutes, or until lightly browned. Let stand 5-10 minutes. Serve warm, garnished with the remaining mint. Do Ahead: The dish can be baked up to 2 hours in advance and left at room temperature. Reheat slightly before serving. It’s also delicious the next day.