Vegetarian Elbasan (Mushroom, Peppers and Rice Baked in Yogurt)
Having eaten the delicious, creamy Albanian Elbasan (or Tave Kosi) my neighbor Ela prepared for us on the Greek island of Kea (where we live), I was determined to come up with a vegetarian version. Ela cooked lamb shanks on the stove with a little water and a quartered onion, then boned the meat and cut it into bite size pieces, discarding all the fat. She left the broth to cool completely and skimmed it, then mixed in eggs and her homemade yogurt, sautéed onions, and flour cooked in a mixture of olive oil and butter. She sprinkled some rice directly into the pan with the meat, then poured in the broth-yogurt liquid. She was very careful not to over-bake or dry out the food, letting the pan sit at room temperature until lukewarm; this made her Tave Kosi so special.
Mushrooms, both dried and fresh, together with peppers, create a very different but flavorful base for my vegetarian version of creamy yogurt-baked rice.
Serves 8 to 10
1/2 cup olive oil, divided, plus more for drizzling
1/2 cup minced shallots
2 teaspoons salt, or to taste
3 packed cups oyster mushrooms, shiitake, chanterelle or any flavorful mushrooms, cleaned, and diced or thinly sliced (about 1 pound)
3 green or red bell peppers halved, seeded and cut into 1/2-inch strips
2/3 cups medium grain rice like Arborio, or any risotto rice
1 cup dried porcini mushrooms soaked in 1 cup boiling water for 20 minutes, then finely chopped (or cut with scissors), liquid reserved
2 teaspoons Aleppo pepper, or a good pinch of crushed red pepper flakes, or plenty of freshly ground black pepper
5 cups natural full-fat yogurt (not thick)--preferably sheep's or goat's milk
3 eggs, lightly beaten
¼ cup tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 cups vegetable broth or water
1/2 cup to 1 cup freshly grated Pecorino, or aged Cheddar cheese
Heat 1/4 cup olive oil in a large, heavy skillet. Add the shallots, sprinkle with 1 teaspoon of the salt, and sauté over medium heat, tossing often for about 5 minutes, or until the shallots start to soften. Add the mushrooms and peppers and sauté for another 8 minutes, until the vegetables are soft, tossing often. Add the rice and stir a few times to coat the grains with oil. Remove from the heat, and stir in the reconstituted porcini (reserving theisteeping liquid separately). Add Aleppo (or crushed red pepper) and black pepper, to taste. Scrape into an oiled 13" x 9" (or equivalent volume) casserole. (Wipe the skillet dry, but don’t wash.)
Preheat the oven to 300°F.
In a large bowl vigorously whisk the yogurt and the eggs to combine.
In the same large skillet, heat the remaining 1/4 cup olive oil with the flour and cook, whisking over medium heat, until very frothy. Slowly whisk in the broth and the reserved porcini liquid. Let cook for a good minute or two, whisking. Remove from the heat. Gradually pour in the yogurt-egg mixture. Add the remaining teaspoon of salt, whisking to incorporate completely.
Set the baking dish on a rimmed baking sheet to ease transport. Pour the yogurt mixture over the rice/vegetables and carefully stir to mix.
Transfer to the middle of the oven and bake for 45 minutes, until it starts to thicken.
Remove from the oven, sprinkle with the cheese, return to the oven, and cook for another 20 to 30 minutess, until the mixture is set but still the slightest bit wobbly. If the top has not browned, heat the broiler and place the pan right under it for 1 to 2 minutes.
Transfer the casserole to a rack. Let cool and set for at least 30 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature.
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