Saturday, June 28, 2008

Eggplant Again!

Yes, eggplant again. And why not? It's such a recipe workhorse. Its versatility makes it a natural for experimentation. I recently received a recipe for a meatless, fat free, dairy-less version of lasagna using eggplant in place of noodles; spinach and mushrooms in place of cheese or meat for the filling. It was interesting and I thought I printed it out. But alas, when I decided to give it a go today, I found not only had I not printed it, I'd not saved it and even emptied the delete file. So efficient!

A quick spin to the Cancer Project section of the Physician's Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) website proved fruitless, too, as the recipe section hadn't been updated. Lack of direction hasn't deterred me yet. Experimenting in the kitchen is great entertainment. I envisioned what I'd read: eggplant layered with mushrooms and spinach using a simple marinara sauce. PCRM's version had no cheese, no oil, no breadcrumbs and, if I remember correctly, an assortment of herbs and spices to kick it up.

My version would use olive oil, a little cheese, a lot of garlic and a generous helping of sautéed onions, along with my quick version of a simple marinara sauce, all laced together with baby Bela mushrooms, fresh baby spinach and a medium Italian eggplant. This recipe filled an 8 x 8 pan.

This dish requires a few separate prep steps besides washing, slicing and dicing. It takes about 60 minutes to prepare and 45 minutes to bake. But, this is a cook once; eat twice (or maybe more) dish. Worth the effort for the spectacular flavors and the healthy take on an old fat-filled favorite—lasagna.

Steps: make marinara sauce; grill or roast eggplant slices; sauté onions and mushrooms; wilt spinach; toast breadcrumbs; assemble; bake.

Ingredients: Balsamic vinaigrette (olive oil w/Balsamic vinegar & Italian herbs, salt & pepper)

Simple marinara sauce*

(or buy a jar of commercial stuff, if you must!)

1/2 pound sliced baby Bela mushrooms (or any 'shroom you prefer)

1/2 large sweet onion, diced

10 oz bag of fresh baby spinach, washed and sliced in ribbons (chiffonade)

1 large clove garlic, minced

Blend of Italian herbs (basil, oregano, marjoram, thyme) or just basil

1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese (1 TBS reserved)
1/4 cup Italian Fontina or Mozzarella cheese, diced small
1/2 cup panko, pan-roasted in olive oil and butter.
Salt and Pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 350°

1. If making the marinara sauce, do that first. See directions below. If using commercial sauce, heat and keep warm on a low burner until ready to assemble dish.

2. Wash and slice the eggplant in 1/4 inch slices (there should be about 12 slices). Brush one side of each slice with the vinaigrette and place on a foil lined cookie sheet. Bake for 15 minutes, then turn, brush the slices with vinaigrette and cook for another 10 minutes, or until tender. Remove from oven and set aside. (An alternative to oven roasting is to grill the eggplant slices on an electric grill pan.)

3. While the eggplant is cooking and the marinara is simmering— on to the mushrooms. In a large 12" skillet, sauté the minced garlic in a tablespoon of olive oil until fragrant, then add the diced onion and sauté for a few more minutes, seasoning with a dash of sea salt and a few grinds of black pepper, then add the sliced mushrooms. Mix carefully to incorporate the onions and garlic. Continue to cooking gently on a medium hot burner.

I like to wash the mushrooms at the last minute and give them a quick spin dry in the salad spinner. There are many opinions about water on mushrooms...but considering where they grow, a quick wash at the last minute does wonders for my peace of mind.

4. While the mushrooms are cooking, wash the spinach and slice it up in batches. Once the mushrooms are tender start adding the spinach to the pan in two batches, allowing the first batch to wilt before adding the balance. Carefully mix the wilted spinach with mushrooms and onions and a generous pinch of Italian herb seasoning, salt and pepper to taste. Once the spinach is wilted and combined, remove from the heat to retain the bright green color of the spinach.

5. Using a 10" non-stick sauté pan, heat one tablespoon of olive oil and a teaspoon of butter (just enough to give a rich flavor but not enough to even count the fat calories!) over medium heat. Once the oil and butter have melted , stir to combine, then add the panko. Spread the crumbs out to cover the bottom of the pan and keep stirring them so all get dressed and continue stirring as they toast up, brown and nutty. What a heavenly aroma. Watch them carefully, they will brown quickly and you want just a light golden hue. Remove them from the hot pan into a little bowl until ready to use.

Now that all the components have been prepared, it's time for assembly.

6. Spread a generous layer of marinara sauce into the bottom of the pan. Arrange eggplant slices in a single layer on top of the sauce. Follow with all of the mushrooms and spinach forming a nice thick layer. Then cover the mushrooms with the rest of the eggplant slices. Top this layer with the grated parmesan, reserving one tablespoon. Then evenly dot the entire top with the little diced squares of Fontina or Mozarrella. Cover the top with a thin layer of marinara sauce.

7. Combine the reserved tablespoon of grated Parmesan with the toasted bread crumbs and spread evenly over the top. Use a tablespoon to carefully cover the top layer of sauce.

Cover the pan with foil and place in 350° oven for 45 minutes. Remove foil for final 15 minutes to brown the top. Remove from oven and let rest for 10 minutes before cutting into squares. Serve with marinara sauce on the side, underneath, or over the top. Enjoy.

* Marinara Quick Sauce

1 28-ounce can Muir Glen organic fire roasted diced tomatoes

2 cloves garlic minced

2 TBS olive oil

pinch of crushed red pepper (optional)

1 tsp Italian herbs (or basil)

Salt & freshly ground pepper to taste.

Sauté minced garlic in olive oil in 3 quart sauce pan over medium heat to sweat the garlic. Do not brown. Add crushed red pepper, if using, and herbs. Then carefully add tomatoes with a very little water. (Just enough to rinse out the can). Simmer gently for 20 - 30 minutes.

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