Lamb, eggplant a power couple in this casserole

The Whole Dish podcast: Slow simmer also suited to lamb stew meat

Less than two months after purchasing a whole lamb from a local 4-Her, I’m already rationing the ground meat.

Summer’s burgers and all manner of stuffed, garden-fresh vegetables are putting a major dent in the ground lamb supply that I’ll also tap this winter for cabbage rolls, shepherd’s pie and our family’s favorite meatballs. And I haven’t even made the season’s first moussaka with our rapidly ripening eggplants.

So I’m challenging myself to use the cubed shoulders, packaged as “stew” and “kebab” meat, for more than my favorite summer souvlaki with the garden’s zucchini, tomatoes and cucumbers. Slow-simmered, this casserole isn’t my typical idea of warm-weather fare, yet it’s in the same vein as moussaka and eggplant Parmesan, which won’t wait for cooler evenings when there are now so many eggplants to use.

The casserole comes on the recommendation of food writer Daniel Neman, who dubbed this dish his favorite in a group of recipes tested last August for a story in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He calls the marriage of lamb and eggplant “special” and this casserole, in particular, “almost unworldly.” Well, if a 3- and 5-year-old will eat it, that would truly make it a special addition to my repertoire.

Hailing from the south of France, the casserole has been likened to the iconic French dish cassoulet, considered by some gourmets the epitome of comfort food with peasant roots. “If they made cassoulet in Provence, it might taste like this,” said cookbook author Jane Sigal.

Or if you made it in Southern Oregon with lamb raised a few miles down the road, the garden’s new-crop garlic and sweet onions and just-picked eggplant, it would taste like home.

Tribune News Service photo

Casserole of Lamb and Eggplant With Garlic

2 3/4 pounds boneless lamb shoulder, cut into 1 1/2-inch pieces, or lamb stew meat

Salt, to taste

1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons olive oil, plus more if needed, divided

2 medium onions, peeled, halved and thinly sliced

2 pounds eggplant, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes

1 cup chicken stock

1 bouquet garni (1 branch fresh thyme or 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme, 6 parsley stems and 1 bay leaf tied in a bundle with kitchen string or cheesecloth)

Black pepper, to taste

3/4 cup fresh breadcrumbs

3 large garlic cloves, peeled

1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley

2 tablespoons butter

Preheat oven to 375 F.

Sprinkle the pieces of lamb with some salt. In a cast-iron or heavy skillet, heat 1/2 cup of the oil over medium heat. Add lamb pieces to oil in batches, brown them all over, 5 to 7 minutes per batch, then transfer to a large casserole.

Add the onions to same pan and cook, stirring, until they are tinged with brown, for 8 to 10 minutes. Add them to lamb in casserole. In same skillet, brown the eggplant in batches with a little salt and add it to lamb. Add oil while cooking eggplant if it looks too dry.

Pour the stock into lamb casserole and tuck in the bouquet garni. Transfer casserole to oven and bake, uncovered, until lamb is tender, for about 1 1/2 hours. Stir mixture 2 or 3 times while cooking. Discard bouquet garni. Add pepper and taste for seasoning. (Casserole can be cooked to this point a day or two ahead and chilled. Reheat, covered, in a 350-degree oven before proceeding).

While lamb cooks, make topping. Add the breadcrumbs to bowl of a food processor and slice in the garlic. Pulse until garlic is coarsely chopped. Add the parsley and pulse until everything is finely chopped. In a pan, melt the butter with remaining 2 tablespoons of oil. Add breadcrumb mixture and stir until evenly coated with butter.

Heat oven broiler. Sprinkle topping over lamb mixture. Put casserole on an oven rack so topping is about 2 inches from heat and broil until lightly browned, for 3 to 5 minutes. Watch carefully and turn casserole as necessary so topping browns evenly and doesn’t burn. Serve as soon as possible.

Makes 6 servings.

Adapted by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch from “Backroad Bistros, Farmhouse Fare: A French Country Cookbook,” by Jane Sigal.

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