Baked Eggplant with Tomato, Red Lentil & Herb Sauce

Baked Eggplant with Tomato & Red Lentil Sauce
Eggplant.  What a strange name for this beautiful food.  I prefer the French name "aubergine" (used by the English as well) in this case as it seems much more elegant and in keeping with what this vegetable can become if treated properly.

Eggplant or aubergine is one of the nutrious foods out there.  Low-calorie when not doused heavily in olive oil, it contains respectable quantity of fiber, vitamins and minerals, many of which have antioxidant properties.  In scientific research, though, eggplant has been most noted for a phytonutrient called nasunin found in its skin - a potent antioxidant that has been shown to protect cell membranes from damage and to protect the fats in brain cell membranes. Maybe this is where the geek nickname of "Egghead" comes any case, perhaps we should all be eating a lot more of this lovely purple vegetable, skin intact.

If you plan to eat the skin, be on the lookout for younger eggplants as the older ones tend to come with a tough skin that is difficult to chew, even when cooked well. Also, if you use the younger eggplants, you won't need to salt them to remove the bitterness and extra water, so it will save you time.  If you do have larger eggplants, see here for tips from the Kitchn on the salting process.

No pre-salting needed this time: just a sprinkle of salt & a drizzle of olive oil and into the oven.
Eggplant reminds me of Italy, and consuming a luscious dish of Melanzane alla Parmiagana (Eggplant Parmesan) on a warm summer evening with a light breeze blowing off of the Mediterranean Sea, candle light flickering across the faces of friends gathered around a large table outside of our rented villa, and laughter all around as we shared stories and anecdotes and good food.

This dish is a slight twist on Eggplant Parmesan, because while it contains both eggplant and parmesan, I tucked in some lentils to boost the nutrient profile. It is quite a lovely dish - another good one for your winter table. It will take about 30 minutes to put together and another 30 minutes to bake, but uses simple, straightforward ingredients and really delivers on the flavor front.

Since the eggplant slices are baked in the oven to pre-cook them rather than fried, they aren't heavy with oil, so you'll find the dish satisfying but not greasy.  The red lentils combined with the tomatoes and herbs in the sauce provide a lovely depth of flavor and texture, and then bread chunks on top get nice and crunchy in the oven, providing a delicious contrast to the smoothness of the rest of the dish.

Allow this dish to cool for at least 10 minutes once you remove it from the oven - it's more relaxing to eat it if it's not steaming hot, and rest time allows it to settle a bit.  Serve with a large green salad on the side, and extra Parmesan for grating over the top.

Creamy, crunchy, satisfying.

Baked Eggplant with Tomato, Red Lentil & Herb Sauce

Preheat oven to 200°C / 400°F

3 small eggplants, cut into rounds about 1/2" / 1.75 cm thick
500 g tomato sauce
one onion, peeled and cut into large chunks
one carrot, peeled and cut into chunks
4 garlic cloves, peeled and halved
3/4 cup / 1.5 dl red lentils, rinsed
3 cups water
1 teaspoon dried oregano or 1 tablespoon fresh oregano
1 cup loosely packed basil leaves
2 tablespoons diced fresh parsley
1.5 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
50 g fresh parmesan, grated
4 slices good quality whole wheat bread (sourdough preferred), cut into 1/2" pieces
olive oil, to drizzle

Place the eggplants on a large baking tray, sprinkle lightly with salt and drizzle with olive oil.  Bake for 15 minutes or until the eggplant slices are lightly browned and tender.  Remove from oven and allow to cool while you finish the sauce.

In a medium pot over medium-high heat, combine the tomato sauce, onion, carrot, garlic, lentils, water, oregano and parsley (basil will be added at the end).  Bring the mixture to a boil, reduce heat to medium-low, and cook until the lentils are tender, about 20 minutes.  Add the basil, salt and pepper and taste.  Add more salt and pepper if needed.  Using a handheld blender, blend the sauce until smooth.  Alternatively, (carefully) pour the sauce into a heat-proof blender or food processor and blend until smooth. (It's dishes like this that make a hand-held blender a worthwhile investment!)

Scoop 1/3 of the sauce into the bottom of a casserole dish to cover the bottom generously.  Lay half of the eggplant on top.  Cover with 1/3 of the tomato sauce.  Sprinkle with 1/2 of the parmesan.  Lay the remaining eggplant slices over the top and cover with the remaining sauce.  Sprinkle the remaining parmesan over the top of the sauce.  Sprinkle the bread chunks over the top of the dish to cover the tomato sauce completely.  Drizzle lightly with olive oil.

Bake in the oven for 30 minutes, or until the mixture begins to bubble and the bread chunks are a crispy golden brown. (you may want to place the casserole dish onto a baking tray in case the sauce bubbles over).  Allow to cool for 10 minutes before serving.

Serves 4-6.

Serve with a side salad like this one...

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