september 29, 2017
For several years, my client menus have included something I like to call Summer’s Bounty Vegetable Bake with Italian Sausage Tomato Sauce and Cheeses. That’s a mouthful, both literally and figuratively. It’s my homage to farmer’s market and roadside stand vegetables, roasted and nestled between layers of meaty tomato sauce and gooey cheese. For my vegetarian clients, the dish is made without sausage and substituted with nuts. For a vegan version, there are some tasty soy based products that perform like sliced mozzarella and various vegan parmesan-like sprinkles found at local natural markets.
Now that fall is here, add the prefix “End of” to that dish with the long title and you have a good description of today’s recipe. Let’s shorten the name to make it even easier, and easier to find once published. Sausage Cheese Vegetable Bake. I suppose you could call this a noodle free lasagna, with the layers of roasted vegetables and cheeses, but casserole or “bake” are better descriptors. The word casserole fell out of favor some years back. With a nostalgic return to comfort foods, it’s popping up in food circles and in food publications once again. Growing up, I missed out on casseroles or what Midwesterners call covered dish suppers. My parents cooked simple meals of meat-and-three, with all components given equal space on our plates. As an adult I bought into the snobbery of avoiding anything thrown into and baked into a large rectangular dish. Somehow I never equated lasagna with casseroles, but there you have it with layers of stuff baked together in complete harmony. Although you still rarely see the word casserole on restaurant menus, I know for sure that even diners versed in restaurant lingo are longing for the comforts of macaroni and cheese, lasagna and other casseroles like the yellow squash with cheddar and Vidalia onion that stays on my menus from spring through summer.
Good luck was had recently at the Lakeside Farmer’s market in Northside Richmond, with glossy black eggplant and firm zucchini from Deer Run Farm, and hot Italian link sausage by Gene Crabill from Tom’s Brook, Virginia. All I needed was grated parmesan and fresh mozzarella. One warning : roasted vegetables can give off a lot of liquid when baked into a casserole. The trick is to salt the vegetables, drawing out excess liquid, and patting or rinsing off the salt prior to roasting. Omit this step and suffer the consequences of a watery dinner. Even with salting and then roasting the vegetables, the finished dish will appear liquid at the edges, but I find that some absorption occurs with a twenty minute rest after removing the casserole from the oven. Your cheese will still be nice and gooey, but less soupiness means a firmer dish to divide into portions. This entree freezes well and that’s a big plus in my book.
After making this sausage bake all summer for clients, I was ready to make and freeze portions for nights when I wanted a comforting casserole with minimal effort. Just defrost overnight in the fridge and bake the next evening. Even with triple digit heat indices, I still like a hot meal sometimes, although my iced tea will be extra icy and a nice cold, crisp salad will be on the table.
Sausage Cheese Vegetable Bake
recipe by Michele Humlan, The Good Eats Company
makes six to eight servings
eight ½ inch rounds of eggplant, unpeeled (save the ends for another dish)
1 ¼ pounds zucchini squash (about 3 medium), cut into ½ inch rounds
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
one cup diced sweet onion
one pound hot Italian sausage, loose or, if in links, removed and crumbled
2 large cloves garlic, zested or finely minced
one teaspoon each dried oregano and dried basil (one tablespoon each of fresh, if available)
28 ounce can crushed tomatoes
one pound fresh mozzarella, sliced or crumbled
one cup freshly grated parmesan cheese
- Place eggplant and zucchini rounds on two separate heavy sheet pans and generously sprinkle kosher salt atop both vegetables.
- While salted vegetables rest, start the sausage tomato sauce (see below).
- After 45 minutes to one hour, blot the eggplant with moist towels; rinse the zucchini well and blot dry with toweling.
- When you see how much excess liquid is exuded in this step, you will be glad you got over your fear of salt—plus, you remove the majority of the salt by blotting and rinsing.
- Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Spray one heavy sheet pan with cooking spray and space eggplant rounds evenly across the sheet, then spritz again with cooking spray.
- Bake eggplant for 17 minutes until tender and set aside to cool.
- On separate sheet pan, repeat steps of spraying pan and then the tops of the zucchini rounds and bake until tender, about 15 minutes; set aside to cool.
- Vegetables may be baked earlier in the day, but avoid refrigeration – use the same day as baking the casserole.
- Decrease oven temperature to 375 degrees.
- In heavy saute pan, combine diced onion with olive oil and a pinch of kosher salt over medium heat; after onion begins to sizzle, stir and cook until onion softens and begins to become translucent, about 10 minutes.
- Add loose sausage and stir frequently until no more pink remains, breaking up any clumps with a wooden spoon.
- Add garlic and herbs, stir about 5-10 seconds and then stir in crushed tomatoes.
- Cook sauce uncovered over medium low heat (mild bubbling) about 45 minutes or until very thick – thicker sauce will mean a firmer casserole.
- In well greased 9 X 13 casserole dish, place eggplant slices so they fit snugly, followed by fresh mozzarella.
- Top with zucchini rounds and then the parmesan cheese.
- Dot the top with the sausage tomato sauce, spreading lightly with a wooden spoon to cover the cheese and vegetables.
- Bake for 30 minutes; allow to settle at room temp about 20 minutes before cutting into servings.