Eggplant bechamel
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FoodA formula for cheesy vegetable dishes

Eggplant bechamel

The best dish that you didn’t know you were missing.

Eggplant bechamel (Photo by Jessica Grann)
Eggplant bechamel (Photo by Jessica Grann)

Eggplant bechamel may be the best dish that you didn’t know you were missing.

Eggplant recipes made with dairy products almost always have a tomato sauce, but this one has cheese and a fairly simple, creamy bechamel sauce made from milk and eggs.

This dish is typically made with Kashkaval or Gruyere cheese, which are both fantastic, but I used feta and it worked out well. Feel free to use any cheese you like; just keep in mind that the softer the cheese, the creamier the sauce will be.

It’s important to bake the eggplant well in the oven before assembling the casserole. We’ve all had the misfortune of having a well-intentioned vegetable lasagna end up full of excess water or undercooked veggies. It only takes a few minutes to prepare the eggplant and pop it into the oven to bake.

You can whip up the bechamel sauce when the eggplant is baking, then quickly assemble the ingredients in a casserole dish to bake again.

This formula is a staple in my kitchen for cheesy eggplant and zucchini dishes. Once you have the basics down, you can use this recipe as a template to create your own favorites.

Eggplant bechamel
Serves 2-3 as a main dish, and 6 for a well-sized side dish

Ingredients

For the vegetables:
3 large eggplants
¼ cup olive oil
Kosher salt to season

For the bechamel sauce:
2 cups hot whole milk
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons flour
4 whole eggs, room temperature
⅛ teaspoon nutmeg
⅛ teaspoon cayenne or Aleppo pepper
4 cups crumbled or grated cheese, divided; you can use feta, Gruyere or Kashkaval

Wash and slice the eggplant lengthwise with a sharp knife in pieces about a quarter-inch thick, removing the stem. I don’t usually peel the eggplants because I like the color and texture that the skin adds to the dish. If you are concerned that the skin may be tough, you can peel the eggplant before slicing.

Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper and place the eggplant slices. Brush them with olive oil and sprinkle with kosher salt. The eggplant will suck up the olive oil immediately, so use a brush to distribute the oil more easily.

Bake at 375 F in the upper third of the oven for 40 minutes.

When the eggplants are almost done baking, prepare the sauce.

Bring 2 cups of whole milk to warm over medium heat in a saucepan. You don’t need to stir the milk; just watch it carefully. Do not step away from the milk as it’s warming on the stove because it can boil over and quickly create a mess. The milk has reached the right temperature when bubbles start coming to the surface and the milk begins to get a skin on the top. Take it off of the heat immediately and set it aside.

In another saucepan, over medium-low heat, melt 2 tablespoons of unsalted butter. Watch the butter carefully so that it doesn’t burn. If it turns brown, wipe out your pan with a paper towel and start again over lower heat.

Add 2 tablespoons of flour to the butter and whisk quickly until the flour is incorporated into the butter and a smooth paste is formed.

Using a ladle, add a few tablespoons of the hot milk to the pan and whisk it well. Repeat this process with about half of the hot milk. You will feel the sauce start to thicken as you stir it.
Add the nutmeg and pepper of your choice and whisk well.

Continue to add the milk until it’s all incorporated and allow the sauce to simmer for a few minutes over low heat.

In a separate bowl, whisk the 4 room-temperature eggs by hand for one minute. (It’s important that the eggs are placed on the counter an hour before cooking because cold eggs will curdle in the hot milk.)
Temper the eggs (once you learn the skill you can use it in many recipes): With the ladle, pick up about a tablespoon of the hot milk and pour it into the bowl of eggs with one hand while constantly whisking the egg mixture with your other hand. Repeat this 5 or 6 times. When you’ve incorporated about a half-cup of the milk, repeat this process in reverse and very slowly pour the tempered egg mixture into the pot of milk, whisking constantly.

Voila! You have a bechamel sauce. Keep this technique in mind if you’re looking for a different way to make lasagna.

Add 3 cups of the cheese into the milk pot and stir well. The cheese does not need to be melted completely into the sauce.

When the eggplants are done baking, take them out of the oven and allow them to cool a bit.

Turn the oven down to 350 F and move the wire rack to the middle position.

Lightly grease a 9-inch-by-13-inch casserole dish.

Place the eggplant in several layers and gently pour the bechamel over it.

Sprinkle the top with the remaining cheese and bake for 45-50 minutes or until bubbly and the cheese on top is nicely browned.

Let it rest for 5 minutes before serving.

Different cheeses have varying degrees of salt, so I suggest salting this to taste at the table. This serves well with a small side of pasta and, as always, a big healthy salad.

Enjoy and bless your hands! PJC

Jessica Grann is a home chef living in Pittsburgh.

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