A fresh take on stuffed eggplant - The San Diego Union-Tribune

2022-07-27 14:13:54 By : Mr. Pinno Liu

When I get busy, cooking becomes less therapeutic and creative. Instead, it’s a means to an end: it’s simply easier to toss something together that you don’t have to think about because you’ve done it a hundred times before. When I’m entertaining, however, I don’t mind gravitating toward something that I might not have time to cook midweek just for me. Eggplant, for example.

Several years ago, while preparing to cook for a friend, I wanted to make a light vegetarian dish that would look gorgeous plated and taste as good as it looked. Holding a beautiful, glossy eggplant while standing in the produce section at the market, the image of a dish I once had at a restaurant flashed through my mind. It was an eggplant dish that had just about made me swoon! The menu listed it as imbottiti — thin slices of eggplant rolled and stuffed with pasta and cheese and topped with tomatoes.

So I bought the eggplant, took it home and made my version of the dish from memory. Even though it had been a long time since I’d enjoyed the restaurant version, my re-creation was successful and a hit at dinner.

After making it several more times, I posted the recipe and photo shortly after I started my blog in 2007. I received many notes from people who had the restaurant’s version of the dish and were happy to find my recipe so they could make it at home.

In those early days of blogging, I didn’t often take step-by-step photos. A couple of weekends ago, I decided to make the dish to take more photos for this story. I invited my youngest sister — an avid home cook — to help. She was enthusiastic about playing photo assistant and “sous chef.” However, she admitted to not being an eggplant lover. “They’re so bitter!” she exclaimed.

“They don’t have to be,” I told her.

Years ago, while I was watching an episode of Alton Brown’s “Good Eats,” he shared some tips for choosing eggplants that have never let me down:

Many recipes call for salting cut-up eggplant before cooking to draw out the moisture (and, some say, bitterness, too). Salting and sweating eggplant is crucial if you’re frying it, as I have found salted eggplant won’t absorb as much oil. It also does change the eggplant’s texture, giving it a nice creaminess. However, as a rule, because I carefully choose my eggplants, I’ve gotten into the habit of rarely salting it before cooking, especially if I’m in a hurry, when I’m roasting or quickly sauteing it. Skipping the salting step cuts down on preparation time, but try it both ways and do what works best for you.

If you decide to salt the eggplant, slice it according to the thickness indicated in a recipe (¼-inch thick planks for instance if the recipe asks for a ¼-inch dice). Generously season both sides, place in a colander set over a bowl and let stand for an hour or up to 4 hours. Use paper towels to blot off moisture and salt; do not rinse it (a lot of the surface salt will have melted with the moisture and drained away). The eggplant is now ready to chop or use as is.

Admittedly, cooking eggplant is a little more involved than holding a bunch of asparagus in one hand, cutting off the woody ends, then steaming or sauteing them to quick perfection. But it isn’t THAT much harder. I’ve tossed chunks into stir-fries and tagines, sliced them into planks for eggplant “steaks,” lightly breaded them and stacked them with rounds of fresh mozzarella for an easy eggplant Parmesan, grilled them to use as a pizza topping and roasted them directly on the grates of a gas stove for homemade baba ganoush.

When my sister pulled the roasted eggplant slices from the oven, I took one and popped half into my mouth. I gave her the other. Her “Mmm, that’s good!” told me I had proved my point that not all eggplant is bitter. When we sat down to eat our finished dish at the end of the photo shoot, she was surprised at how much she loved it.

I successfully converted another family member to something we didn’t grow up eating, which always makes me happy.

2 medium firm globe eggplants Olive oil Sea salt Freshly ground black pepper 4 ounces, angel hair pasta ½ cup pesto, plus 2 tablespoons, divided use (recipe follows) 3 large ripe tomatoes, finely chopped (about 3 cups) 1 tablespoon capers 2 large garlic cloves, minced ⅓ cup fresh basil leaves 1 cup pasta sauce, divided use (use your favorite jarred or homemade sauce) 1 cup ricotta ⅓ cup shredded mozzarella ¼ cup grated Parmesan

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

Cut off the tops and bottoms of the eggplant. Stand the eggplant bottom down and carefully make a thin cut, slicing away the skin. Repeat on the opposite side (this exposes the flesh on the first and last usable slices). Slice the eggplant from top to bottom to get 8 planks from each eggplant. Tip: Score the center, make three evenly spaced scored marks on either side of the center mark, then slice down, using the scored cuts as guides.

Line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Brush both sides of each eggplant slice with olive oil, arranging the pieces on the baking sheets. Season each side with salt and pepper. Roast for 15 to 18 minutes, flipping the eggplant halfway through roasting so the slices cook evenly. Remove from the oven when tender, then lower the temperature to 350 degrees.

While waiting for the eggplant to roast, boil and cook the pasta to al dente according to package directions (better to be a little undercooked than over, as the pasta will finish cooking when baked). Immediately drain when it’s ready, rinsing with cold water to stop the cooking. Transfer to a bowl, tossing with ½ cup pesto; set aside.

While the pasta is cooking, add the tomatoes, capers, garlic and basil to a bowl, tossing with 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Add ½ cup of pasta sauce. Stir well to combine and season with salt and pepper to taste; set aside.

Combine the ricotta, the reserved 2 tablespoons of pesto, the mozzarella and Parmesan in a small bowl. Season with salt and pepper to taste; set aside.

To assemble, spread the reserved ½ cup of pasta sauce (not the one with the fresh tomatoes) on the bottom of a casserole or lasagna pan (about 9- by 13-inch). Place a slice of eggplant on your work surface. Spread a tablespoon of the ricotta mixture at the fat end, stopping at the middle. Bundle a tablespoon or two of the pasta with your fingers, folding and bunching it up, then place the pasta bundle on top of the ricotta, close to the bottom edge of the eggplant slice. Starting at the pasta and ricotta end, roll the eggplant, catching whatever pasta spills out and pushing it back into the roll. Place seam-side down in the prepared baking dish. Repeat with the remaining slices. Finish by topping each rolled bundle with 2 tablespoons of the fresh tomato mixture. Bake the eggplant for 15 minutes. Let stand for 5 minutes before serving with a side salad.

I love the peppery notes that the arugula adds to this pesto; it also keeps the pesto a bright green. The lemon adds an acidic pop that cuts through the richness of the fat from the nuts, oil and cheese.

¼ cup pine nuts 2 ounces fresh basil leaves (about 2 cups) ½ cup packed arugula ¼ cup grated Parmesan 1 clove garlic, peeled and rough chopped 2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice ¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil ½ teaspoon sea salt, or to taste ¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Heat an 8-inch skillet on medium-low. Once hot, add pine nuts and toast, shaking the skillet to keep them from burning. Remove when pine nuts are golden brown. Attach the chopping blade to a food processor and toss in the basil first, followed by the pine nuts and the rest of the ingredients. Process until you reach desired consistency, adding more olive oil if needed. Taste and adjust seasoning. Transfer to an airtight container and top with olive oil to keep the top from oxidating. Store in refrigerator for up to a week.

Recipes are copyrighted by Anita L. Arambula and are reprinted by permission from “Confessions of a Foodie.”

Arambula is the food section art director and designer. She blogs at confessionsofafoodie.me, where the original version of this article was published. Follow her on Instagram: @afotogirl. She can be reached at anita.arambula@sduniontribune.com.

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