Eggplant and Lamb Al Forno
Translated from Italian, “al forno” simply is a sexier way to say a dish is baked. This delicious entree screams Mediterranean and is so hearty and satisfying that it would be best enjoyed on a cold winter or fall day paired with a simple side salad of cucumbers and red onion.
This is a layered entree not all that unlike a lasagna except we’ll be using eggplant instead of noodles. I also picked roasted red peppers as a sauce base for the ground lamb instead of the more traditional tomato.
When I was a kid, I always had bad heartburn. Back then, I would just self medicate with some chalky antacid to make it go away. I had never really considered at the time that there may be a bigger underlying issue with my diet and it wasn’t until adulthood that I even had it checked out by a professional.
When I was in my 30ties, I had my first endoscopy as my symptoms were becoming routine and much more severe. The results showed that I had ulcers in my esophagus due to a condition called Barrett’s esophagus. I won’t dive too deep into the details of this condition, but it’s usually the result of repeated exposure to high acid foods and is often a symptom of people with GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease).
I decided against the doctor suggested surgery and also against taking a PPI (proton pump inhibitor) every day for the rest of my life and instead chose to lower my intake of high acid foods like tomatoes.
While tomatoes offer solid nutrient content, they are also high in citric and malic acid which are what can cause acid reflux and heartburn. In making dietary changes to combat this sour stomach syndrome, I look to replace tomatoes where it makes sense in my diet and recipes. In this recipe, I’ll be substituting them with roasted red peppers which are more alkaline than acidic and in my personal experience, leave me with much less of a sour stomach feeling.
Red peppers pack in twice the daily suggested amount of vitamin C your body needs. Vitamin C is an essential vitamin meaning your body cannot produce it naturally. When I was a kid and not feeling well, my parents would always give me vitamin C to ward off illness and boost immunity. It also works to help protect blood cells from free radicals.
Essentially in this recipe, we’ll be making a meat sauce with roasted red peppers and ground lamb to be layered between slices of salted eggplant.
Studies have shown that the average American eats less than a pound of lamb per year and some who sway from eating lamb may suggest the flavor is gamey or otherwise unpleasant.
Since most New Zealand or Australian lamb is grass fed, ground lamb still will have that earthy flavor but will be less potent than a chop or rib cut. If you’re on the fence with how you feel about the flavor of lamb, try it in burger form, or in a recipe like this, in a sauce and and I’ll think you’ll be praising yourself for making an adventurous smart choice! As an alternative, you could use ground turkey or chicken.
On the health tip, lamb is rich in vitamin B and more specifically in vitamin B-12 which give your body high levels of energy and is good to revive blood cells. It’s also a good way to intake zinc that helps thyroid function, healing and is an immune booster.
One other ingredient I’m choosing to substitute here might be a surprise. Instead of using breadcrumbs to top this dish, I’m using crushed chicharron (fried pork skin). This makes the dish gluten free and will add the same great texture and seasoning.
- 2 eggplants – ends removed and cut into ½ inch slices
- 1 pounds ground lamb
- 3 red bell peppers
- 1 medium white onion – diced
- 3 cloves garlic- minced
- Tsp ground cumin
- Tsp dry oregano
- Tsp dry thyme
- Tbsp olive oil
- ¼ c parsley – rough chop
- ¼ cup chicharron – blitzed in food processor
- Salt and pepper
Set your oven to 400.
Salt the slices of eggplant and place in a colander in the sink. Salting the vegetable will help to draw out some of the moisture which will help keep this dish from getting soggy when baked. Allow the eggplant to drain for about 35 minutes then rinse the salt off and dry it with paper towels.
While the eggplant is going, char the red peppers. I do this by turning on one of the burners on my stove and by placing the peppers directly on the burner. Let the peppers char on each side until blackened. Once fully charred, put the peppers in a glass bowl and cover with plastic wrap to steam for about 10 minutes. This will make it easier to peel off the skin.
After 10 minutes, remove the plastic wrap, remove the skin and cut the peppers in half, removing the stem, seeds and white parts. Cut the peppers into strips then chop.
Heat a saute pan or skillet on medium heat. Add the olive oil and diced onion. Cook for 3-4 minutes then add the garlic and red peppers. Add the cumin, oregano and thyme along with about a teaspoon of salt and ½ teaspoon cracked pepper. Cook for about 3-4 minutes longer than add the ground lamb.
Break up the lamb and let it cook until well browned. Spoon off and discard some of the fat as it cooks so your sauce isn’t too greasy. You can do this by tilting the pan to remove the excess. It’s ok to leave some fat but you don’t want it to be swimming in it. Cover and reduce the heat to low and cook for about 5-8 more minutes.
Use a baking dish or other deep glass lasagna dish and spoon a very thin layer of the sauce on the bottom of the dish. This will help keep the bottom of the eggplant from burning. Place 6-9 pieces of the eggplant in a single layer on top of the sauce then spoon more sauce on top of the eggplant. Repeat with another slice of eggplant then more sauce and then a third slice of eggplant. Top the third piece with the rest of the sauce.
Mix the crushed chicharron with half the parsley and top each piece with an equal amount.
Tent with foil, put in the oven and set your timer for 50 minutes.
While the dish is in the oven, you can make your salad or any sides you want to serve with it.
After your timer goes off, remove the foil and place back in the oven for 15 minutes.
Remove from oven and top with the remaining parsley and serve immediately.