Rolling Along

I like vegetarian food. In fact, quite often we eat vegetarian meals without ever thinking, "This is a meatless meal."

I'm willing to bet that you, too, eat vegetarian a lot without even giving it a second thought.

Cheese pizza. Spaghetti with tomato-basil sauce. Mushroom lasagne. Cheese soufflé. Ratatouille. Quiche. Stuffed eggplant. All sorts of Middle Eastern, African, and Asian dishes. It is impossible to make a comprehensive list.

Of course, when we have vegetarians as dinner guests, the absence of meat is premeditated.

For example, today's eggplant rolls. Our young friend RJ (a graduate student in Econ at the University of Arizona) was coming to dinner with his parents; I have known his mother since I was five years old.

RJ is vegetarian and I wanted to make something special for him. This dish was it. It is the kind of vegetarian dish that doesn't make you wonder, "Where's the beef?"

Notes to consider: I roasted the eggplant slices but you could easily grill them to impart a smoky flavor. You can also use a variety of herbs for the filling, but I am quite partial to marjoram with lemon zest. When available, I use freshly made ricotta cheese and, for the tomatoes, if using canned, I always use San Marzano tomatoes.

Buon appetito!

~ David

Rollatini di Melanzane - Eggplant Rollatini

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 large shallot, chopped
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes, or to taste
1 32-ounce can San Marzano tomatoes, with juices
salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 large eggplants
olive oil
16 ounces ricotta cheese
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1/2 cup shredded mozzarella
1 tablespoon chopped fresh marjoram (or basil, or thyme)
finely grated zest of 1 lemon
8 tablespoons grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, divided
1/2 cup panko bread crumbs
1 tablespoon butter

Preheat oven to 375°F (190°C).

In a large heavy-bottomed saucepan, heat oil over medium-high heat. Add shallot and red pepper; sauté until the shallot is soft and translucent, about 5 to 10 minutes. Add tomatoes and break up with the back of a spoon. Season with salt and Pepper and simmer uncovered on low heat for 20-30 minutes until thickened. Taste for seasoning. Set aside.

Trim the ends off the eggplant and, using a mandoline, cut them lengthwise into 1/4-inch thick slices; you will need 16 slices. (It helps to oil the mandoline lightly, as the eggplant catches easily.) Arrange eggplant slices on cooling racks and sprinkle both sides with salt. Let sit for 10 minutes. Wipe off the salt and pat slices dry with paper towels. Line a baking pan with aluminum foil. Liberally oil the aluminum foil, then place a third of the eggplant slices on the foil-lined sheet and bake for 15 minutes, turning once halfway through using a spatula because, even with the oiled foil, the eggplant slices will stick and tear if you use tongs. The slices should be soft and pliable, and not browned. Place slices on cooling racks and repeat with remaining sliced eggplant in two more batches. Allow slices to cool.

In a large bowl, mix the ricotta with the egg, mozzarella, marjoram, lemon zest, and 3 tablespoons of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. Place a heaping tablespoon of the cheese mixture on the wide end of each eggplant slice and roll up tightly. Place the eggplant roll into an oiled 9 by 13-inch baking dish (or individual baking dishes, as I have done here), seam side down. Continue with remaining eggplant slices.

Spoon the tomato sauce over the eggplant rollatini (using four individual casseroles, I used 1/2 cup tomato sauce for each). Season with salt and pepper. Heat the butter in a small skillet, and add the breadcrumbs, cooking until they turn golden – about 5 minutes. Let cool. Mix the remaining 5 tablespoons Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese with the breadcrumbs and sprinkle over the sauced rollatini; bake for 15-20 minutes.

Serves 4-6.

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