A contemplation on vegetation: eggplant

a pile of pancetta and garlic makes anything good.
Eggplant is a troubling vegetable, as far as vegetables go. You can’t eat it raw. It often gets too mushy for me when baked, but it tastes good battered and fried. If you sauté it, it will soak up as much oil as you allow within its vicinity. Eggplant, it often seems to me, is simply begging to be voided of its nutritional value, and sadly often I am only too happy to oblige. Luckily enough, there is grilling.
Grilled eggplant is something quasi-artsy, as though it should appear only in a marked-up café entrée pyramid with roasted pepper and coulis, and it certainly is wonderful with there, and with other cold marinated vegetables in salad or sandwiches. But I also prefer it more humbly in place of the battered and fried version, where its meatiness stands out noticeably in the absence of breading. I also like it in those dishes because the eggplant fools me into thinking it's lighter, and therefore somehow allows me to justify smothering it with cheese. Eggplant rolls are a beautiful opportunity to do just that. A grilled eggplant roll is a gorgeous backdrop, a canvas of itself - the neutral insides contrast with the purple skin and the char marks of the grill, and cheese flecked with herb and pepper spills out the sides. Vary the seasonings, the accompaniments, and the eggplant roll coiled around will make it seem elegant.
I had been in the mood for eggplant and pasta though, and so this is a more familiar, Italian-style use of eggplant. The tomato sauce to accompany it is sort of an inspired improvisation – there’s an amatriciana sauce in the Dean & DeLuca cookbook I want to try, but this wasn’t the time. Alternatively if you're pressed for time, you can simply grill the eggplant and slice it into strips and toss it with hot rotini pasta and the sauce and dollop in the cheese.

one 26-oz jar good quality tomato sauce (I like Barilla)
1/3 lb. pancetta, diced
several garlic cloves, minced
small amount oil or butter
eggplant rolls

about 2-2.5 lbs eggplant
15 0z. ricotta cheese
grated asiago cheese
grated parmesan or romano cheese
salt and pepper to taste
1/4-1/2 tsp each dried basil, parsley, oregano

Start the eggplant: rinse and dry well and chop off the caps so you have flat ends. Using a knife, pare off the skin in about a 2-inch length on opposite sides of the eggplant. Slice the eggplant lengthwise so that each piece is bordered on the edge with purple, in about 1/8-inch or so thickness. Spray each slice with nonstick cook spray or dab very lightly with oil. Place on a preheated indoor grill or grill pan and cook on each side about six-eight minutes. Make sure the eggplant slices are cooked through before removing to a large platter to cool.
Meanwhile, melt the butter or heat the oil over medium heat in a 3-qt saucepan. Let the garlic soften but make sure it does not brown. Add the diced pancetta and stir. Let cook about five or seven minutes. Add the tomato sauce and stir. Bring to a slight simmer and let it meld.
In a medium bowl combine the cheeses and seasonings; stir well. Spray a baking pan with nonstick cook spray or prepare a broiler pan. Lay out a somewhat cooled eggplant slice and place a heaping tablespoon or so of filling at one short end of the slice. Roll the eggplant up and place in the prepared pan; repeat until you have run out of eggplant. Stir any remaining cheese mixture into the tomato sauce. Bake or broil the eggplant for three or four minutes until the cheese is just melted. Serve with tomato sauce and rotini pasta.


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