This recipe for quinoa cakes with eggplant-tomato ragu and mozzarella was an entirely accidental, but fortuitous, discovery. I was searching through Epicurious for a dessert recipe, believe it or not, something based on the apples and cranberries sitting in our fridge. Not having much luck, I found myself repeatedly distracted by a little sidebar advertising the recipe of the day: quinoa cakes with eggplant-tomato ragu and mozzarella from Gourmet’s February 2008 issue. Pages of apple crumbles, cobblers, pies, and tarts went by, but my attention and palate had already moved elsewhere, dreaming of melting mozzarella over a vegetable-rich sauce and crunchy little whole grain patties.
Not long after, having procured eggplant and tomatoes, all the additional ingredients I’d need beyond what was stocked in the fridge and pantry, I put together this delicious recipe. I’d argue it’s a new and improved version of a ratatouille, on that adds the nutty crunch of lightly pan-fried quinoa cakes and the melting, oozing goodness of fresh mozzarella. It was not without its difficulties, I’ll admit. Initially delighted with myself when I managed to shape the quinoa-egg mixture into 5 perfect cakes, I was disheartened to find that after leaving them in the fridge to set and chill all day while I was at work, they still were so delicate as to crumble when I tried to transfer them over to a hot saute pan. One taste, though, and I resigned myself to the fact that though the quinoa cakes didn’t look quite as pretty as I had hoped, with crumbly bits and imperfections, they were sensational. I would have been happy noshing on the crispy, crunchy cakes even without the vegetable ragu, but adding the warm, moist topping (and let’s not forget the mozzarella!) only made the whole meal even more delightful. I’d be willing to bet that even those who don’t like whole grains, who think that quinoa is the provenance of health nut hippies alone, will be asking for seconds of this fantastic dish.
Quinoa cakes with eggplant-tomato ragu and mozzarella (serves 3-4)
For quinoa cakes:
1 1/2 cups water
1 cup quinoa
1 large egg, lightly beaten
4 to 5 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 1/2 lb eggplant, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1 small onion, finely chopped
2 teaspoons finely chopped garlic
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup grape or cherry tomatoes, halved
1/2 cup drained bottled roasted red peppers, rinsed and chopped
3/4 cup water
1 tablespoon chopped flat-leaf parsley
1/4 lb mozzarella (smoked or regular), diced (1 cup)
1. To make quinoa cakes: Bring water and 1/2 teaspoon salt to a boil in a heavy medium saucepan. Meanwhile, wash quinoa in 3 changes of water in a bowl, then drain well in a fine-mesh sieve. Stir quinoa into boiling water and return to a boil, then simmer, covered, until quinoa is dry and water is absorbed, 20 to 30 minutes. Remove from heat and let stand, covered, 5 minutes. Transfer to a large bowl and cool, stirring occasionally, 10 minutes, then stir in egg.
2. Line a baking sheet with plastic wrap and lightly brush with oil. Lightly oil a 1-cup dry-ingredient measure. Pack enough quinoa into measure with a rubber spatula to fill it two-thirds full. (If spatula becomes sticky, dip in water.) Unmold onto baking sheet and gently pat quinoa into a 4-inch-wide patty with spatula. Make 3 more quinoa cakes, brushing measure with oil each time. Chill cakes, uncovered, at least 15 minutes. (Quinoa cakes can be formed 1 day ahead and chilled, covered.)
3. To make topping (while quinoa cooks and chills): Toss eggplant with 1 teaspoon salt in a colander and drain 30 minutes. Squeeze handfuls of eggplant to extract liquid, then pat dry.
4. Cook eggplant, onion, garlic, oregano, and 1/4 teaspoon each of salt and pepper in oil in a 12-inch heavy skillet over medium heat, covered, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 5 minutes. Stir in tomatoes, roasted peppers, and water and simmer, covered, stirring occasionally, until eggplant is very tender and mixture is thick (if dry, thin with a little water), about 10 minutes. (Eggplant-tomato ragù, without parsley and mozzarella, can be made 1 day ahead and chilled, covered.)
5. To cook quinoa cakes: Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a 12-inch nonstick skillet over medium heat until it shimmers. Carefully add quinoa cakes and cook, turning once carefully and adding remaining 2 to 3 tablespoons oil, until crisp and golden, 8 to 10 minutes total (pat cakes to reshape with cleaned rubber spatula while cooking if necessary). Transfer to plates.
6. To serve: Return eggplant ragù to a simmer and stir in parsley and half of mozzarella, then simmer, stirring, until cheese just begins to soften, about 30 seconds. Spoon over quinoa cakes, then sprinkle with remaining mozzarella.