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(AP) - I've always been a big fan of eggplant Parmesan. There are a bunch of ways to make this classic Italian dish, but I'm partial to what you might call the full-fat version: thick slices of breaded eggplant that are sauteed, then baked until creamy, and finally topped with tomato sauce and melted cheese.
A vegetarian delight, eggplant Parmesan nonetheless can be very heavy. You gobble it down with gusto for dinner, but discover it still sitting in your gut like a brick the next day. So I wanted to concoct a lighter recipe that still retained all of the ingredients that make my favorite version so wonderful.
Eggplant tends to soak up oil like a sponge, so the first thing I did here was to take a cue from my mom. She used to make an easy but inventive side dish with eggplant, cutting each one into 1/2-inch slices, brushing every slice with her homemade vinaigrette, then baking them all until they were tender and golden. This limits how much oil they can absorb. For simplicity, I sprayed each slice with a modest amount of oil before baking them.
Unfortunately, this clever strategy created a new problem. The eggplant in my favorite version is breaded. Here it isn't. I was happy to lose the oil, but I didn't want to lose the bread, particularly in a saucy dish like this. So I literally turned the recipe inside out, placing the bread _ in the form of croutons _ inside the rolled-up slices of eggplant.
The croutons do get tender during baking, but they also absorb and marry the other flavors in the filling: Parmesan cheese, mozzarella cheese and roasted red pepper. Full disclosure: I'm well aware that roasted red peppers are not typical of traditional eggplant Parmesans. I added them because they contribute bulk and good nutrition. And because I love the tang they lend the dish.
Even though this recipe uses less than the usual amount of cheese, my crack team of testers didn't seem to miss it. My secret? The speedy marinara sauce. Loaded with garlic, a bit of oil and a healthy pinch of red pepper flakes, this sauce radiates so much robust flavor that folks forget the missing cheese. And I encourage you to make this marinara at home rather than use store-bought; it is simple, fast and quite tasty.
A few notes about buying eggplant. I recommend the biggest you can find for this recipe. You'll know they're fresh if the skin is smooth and the flesh is firm to the touch. If you can't find large eggplants, use the smaller ones and just overlap the slices slightly to make substantial roll-ups.
I believe that this eggplant Parmesan is an excellent candidate for the centerpiece of a meatless meal. Just round it out with some steamed broccoli and a tossed green salad, and you're good to go. This is the kind of cozy cold weather meal that will make everyone glad winter is not quite over.
INSIDE-OUT EGGPLANT PARMESAN ROLLS
Start to finish: 1 hour
2 slices large rustic (not bagged sliced) white or whole-wheat bread, crusts discarded and bread cut into 1/4-inch cubes (about 1 3/4 cups)
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
2 pounds large eggplant
Olive oil cooking spray
1/2 cup finely chopped roasted red pepper
2 ounces fresh mozzarella, cut into 1/4-inch cubes
1/2 ounce grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
1 teaspoon minced garlic
2 1/2 cups purchased marinara sauce or speedy marinara sauce (recipe below)
Fresh basil, to garnish
Heat the oven to 400 F and adjust the oven racks so there is one in the top third and one in the bottom third of the oven.
In a medium bowl toss the bread cubes with the oil and a pinch of salt. On a large rimmed baking sheet, spread the cubes in an even layer and bake on the oven's lower shelf until golden brown, 5 to 8 minutes. Transfer them back to the bowl.
While the cubes are baking, prepare the eggplant. Leaving the skin on, slice it top-to-bottom into 1/4-inch-thick slices, discarding the end pieces that are mostly skin.
Spray the baking sheet you used for the bread as well as a second large baking sheet with the olive oil spray. Sprinkle the eggplant slices very lightly with salt on both sides and arrange them in a single layer on the baking sheets. Spray them lightly with additional olive oil spray. Bake just until barely golden, 16 to 20 minutes, switching the sheet pan positions in the oven after 8 minutes.
Add the red pepper, mozzarella, Parmigiano-Reggiano and garlic to the bread cubes and toss well.
Pour half of the tomato sauce into the bottom of a shallow baking pan. Set aside.
Arrange the eggplant slices on a kitchen surface, overlapping a few if they are small to make a wider rectangle (you will need 12 portions total), and divide the filling among the portions, mounding it in the center of each slice. Roll up the slices to enclose the filling. Place the rolls, seam side down, in the baking dish. Spoon the remaining sauce over the rolls and bake on the oven's lower shelf until the sauce is bubbling, 15 to 20 minutes.
Divide the rolls between 6 serving plates, making sure that each portion has ample sauce. Top with fresh basil.
Nutrition information per serving: 260 calories; 90 calories from fat (35 percent of total calories); 11 g fat (3 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 10 mg cholesterol; 34 g carbohydrate; 7 g fiber; 9 g sugar; 9 g protein; 780 mg sodium.
SPEEDY MARINARA SAUCE
Start to finish: 25 minutes
Makes 2 1/2 cups
2 large garlic cloves, smashed
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Hefty pinch red pepper flakes
28-ounce can low-sodium diced tomatoes (preferably fire roasted)
In a medium skillet combine the garlic and the oil. Turn the heat to medium-low and cook, turning over the garlic several times, until it is just golden, 3 to 5 minutes. Add the red pepper flakes and cook, stirring, for 30 seconds. Add the tomatoes and a hefty pinch of salt, bring to a boil, and cook at a brisk simmer for 20 minutes, or until the sauce is reduced to about 2 1/2 cups.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Sara Moulton was executive chef at Gourmet magazine for nearly 25 years, and spent a decade hosting several Food Network shows. She currently stars in public television's "Sara's Weeknight Meals" and has written three cookbooks, including "Sara Moulton's Everyday Family Dinners."
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