I have a confession. For all my Mediterranean obsession, I hate two of the most essential Mediterranean vegetables: eggplant and zucchini. I would refer to zucchini as a useless vegetable – a filler that restaurants throw in to bulk up better vegetables like cauliflower because it has no particular flavor or texture. As for eggplant, I think it’s horrible in terms of both flavor and texture – mushy, bitter, stringy.
But I want to change, I really do. I like the idea of these vegetables. I don’t want to reject any vegetable, especially not ones that feature so prominently in some of my favorite cuisines. And I believe I can change. I’ve had one good dish featuring each vegetable. The archaeologist leading my Sicily dig back in 2016 made the whole team an amazing zucchini frittata that I ate on bread with Sicilian pecorino and tomatoes. And a friend of mine from my medieval music group days in Boston made eggplant parmesan where each slice of eggplant, after being thoroughly salted, was individually fried with a generous coating of just egg and cheese.
So I got some ideas from these dishes for how to make eggplant and zucchini a bit more palatable. I knew I would need to start with good specimens of each vegetable – smaller, with not a ton of seeds. It also clearly helped to slice them thinly and cook them a bit on their own before throwing them in with other things, just like I do with onions to mellow out their texture. And hard cheese definitely helped the flavor. I also realized that in the past I’ve had ratatouille ground up as a dip, which was pretty good, and I’ve had moussaka that I didn’t hate, so combining both vegetables with other ingredients, like tomatoes and spices, makes them better.
So I decided to make something halfway between ratatouille and moussaka – a sort of layered casserole with potatoes, spiced lamb, and tomatoes, featuring a big layer in the middle of zucchini and eggplant, topped with a roasted pepper sauce and parmesan breadcrumbs. And it was delicious! Even my husband, who hates these vegetables more than I do, loved it. It’s definitely on the fussier side, and I would make it even fussier by cooking the potatoes on their own first. But it also scales easily, so this would be a great centerpiece for a gathering (if you swap the breadcrumbs for matzo meal, it would make a great Passover centerpiece).
The only problem is that I don’t have a name for this. So for now, I’m calling just calling it:
Mediterranean Lamb and Vegetable Casserole
Thinly slice two large Yukon gold potatoes and shingle across the bottom of a greased oval (or square 8″) baking dish, seasoning liberally with salt, pepper, and olive oil in between layers. Bake at 350* for 45 minutes to an hour or until the potatoes get crispy. Meanwhile, blister one red bell pepper, one green bell pepper, and one jalapeno, either by placing them directly over an open flame or putting them under a broiler until blackened. Place in a bowl and cover with a pot lid. Set aside. Thinly slice one medium eggplant and two small zucchini and cook them in batches in a dry skillet on medium-high until they are browned on the edges – overcrowding will prevent browning, so make sure to underfill the pan. Set aside. Slice two large shallots or one large red onion and 4 cloves of garlic. Saute the onions and garlic in a small amount of olive oil until they are very soft. Set aside. In the same pan, brown 1/2 lb ground lamb and season with salt, 1/2 tsp cumin, 1 tsp coriander, 1/2 tsp dried mint (or 1 tbsp finely chopped fresh), 1/2 tsp cinnamon, and 1/2 tsp paprika. When the lamb is cooked and beginning to dry out, add about 1/2 cup halved cherry tomatoes and the cooked onion and garlic. Now that the blistered peppers are cool, remove their skins, stems, ribs, and seeds with a paring knife, split them into smaller pieces, and blend them together in a small food processor or blender – they are wet enough that you shouldn’t need more liquid, but a bit of olive oil can help if the processor blade seizes up. Blend until smooth and add a pinch of salt. Wipe out the processor and grind up a 1×4″ piece of parmesan or other hard cheese. Mix with 1 cup of breadcrumbs, or grind your own by adding 2 torn slices of sandwich bread to the processor.
Layer the ingredients. Spread the zucchini and eggplant in an even layer on top of the cooked potatoes, then the lamb mixture. Top with the pepper puree, making sure to evenly coat everything. Press down with a spatula or spoon to compact the layers, then spread the breadcrumb mixture on top. Drizzle with olive oil and a pinch of salt and pepper, then bake at 350* for 30-45 minutes, or until the breadcrumbs are browned and some liquid bubbles on the side. Allow to cool for a few minutes before serving. Reheats wonderfully.