Every Tuesday evening after work, Peter goes to "movie night" at a local cigar shop owned by one of his good friends. When he first started going, I didn't bother making myself dinner. I kind of enjoyed a night "off" from cooking and it was often much easier to just eat a bowl of cereal, make a quick sandwich or order take-out. Those dinner options got old really fast and I quickly started using Tuesday nights as weekly opportunities to try new recipes. My Tuesday evening "cooking for one" sessions often include ingredients that Peter isn't fond of, but ones I adore eating, like eggplant. I've lost track of how many times I've made myself a pan of Eggplant Parmigiana, but last week, I switched things up and made these Eggplant Rollatini.
Eggplant Rollatini are more of an Italian-American creation, but the preparation of rolling a filling between thin vegetable (or meat or fish) slices has roots in traditional Italian recipes. In Italy, rollatini are also known as involtini and in addition to being baked, they can also be grilled or pan-sauteed depending on what you are using as the "wrapper" for the filling. Vegetables do better baked casserole-style since their texture is delicate; meats and fish can stand up to grilling and sauteeing with a quick finish in the oven.
There are many varieties of eggplant and most of them are interchangable. Although eggplant is available year-round, its peak season is mid- to late summer. Fresh eggplant should have a tight, smooth and glossy skin that "squeaks" when you run your finger over the surface. The rough "cap" should be green and there shouldn't be any dents or blemishes on the skin.
The ongoing debate with preparing eggplant is to salt or not to salt? I have read answers to this question from both camps, and when I am preparing eggplant, I simply use my judgement. Larger size eggplant usually have more seeds, which can impart bitterness, so I will salt slices from larger ones. The eggplant I used for this recipe were medium size and had some seeds, so I erred on the side of caution and salted the slices. You can skip the salting if you are using smaller size or the "baby" variety of eggplant. Most varieties will work for this recipe, so experiement to see which kind you like best.
The one significant change I made to this recipe was baking the eggplant slices instead of frying them. Now, I love fried eggplant and I fry the slices when I make my Eggplant Parmigiana. This time, I wanted to lighten things up by baking the eggplant slices and I loved the results. You could also grill the slices if you want a slightly smoky flavor. Grilling eggplant also crisps the edges which gives it great texture.
Keep in mind when assembling the rollatini to use a light hand with the sauce and the cheese. Many Italian-American recipes are drowning in sauce and oozing with cheese and the flavor and texture of the main ingredients are masked. The trick to a delicious finished dish is balancing all the components so they harmonize into a perfect balance of flavors and textures.
Adapted from Lidia's Italian-American Kitchen by Lidia Bastianich
2 small eggplant
1 Tablespoon kosher salt
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 recipe Marcella Hazan's Tomato Sauce with Butter and Onion (you will not use all of it)
1 15-ounce container whole milk ricotta cheese
1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese
1/3 cup finely chopped fresh basil
1/3 cup finely chopped fresh parsley
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 egg, lightly beaten
1/4 cup Parmigiano Reggiano or Grana Padano
Trim ends off of the eggplant and peel the skin off in alternating strips. Cut the eggplant into 1/4-inch slices lengthwise and place in a colander set in the sink. Sprinkle the kosher salt evenly over all of the eggplant slices, tossing to make sure they are all coated with the salt. Let the eggplant slices steep fort 30 minutes. Don't worry if you notice a bit of discoloration on the eggplant slices.
Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Warm the tomato sauce on the stovetop over low heat, stirring occasionally to prevent scorching.
Rinse each eggplant slice under cool running water and set on a double layer of paper towels. Pat dry thoroughly. Place the slices on two parchment-lined baking sheets (do not overlap them). Brush both sides of each slice with the olive oil. Bake the eggplant for 20-25 minutes until they are lightly browned. Remove the eggplant slices from the oven and set aside to cool.
To make the filling
Place the ricotta, mozzarella, basil, parsley, salt, pepper and nutmeg in a mixing bowl and mix gently with a spatula. Add in the beaten egg and mix to combine until it is well incorporated. Refrigerate the ricotta mixture until you are ready to use it.
To assemble the rollatini
Pour 1/2 cup of the tomato sauce in the bottom of an oven-safe baking dish and spread it out evenly. Take an eggplant slice and lay it on a plate or cutting board. Place 2 Tablespoons of the ricotta filling at the end of the eggplant slice closest to you and gently roll the slice. Place it in the baking dish seam side down. Repeat with the remaining eggplant slices. Pour another 1/2 to 3/4 cup tomato sauce over the rollatini and spread out evenly. Sprinkle with the Parmigiano (or Grana Padano) and cover the baking dish with foil. Bake for 30-40 minutes until the sauce is bubbling and the filling is heated through completely. Let the rollatini rest for 10 minutes before serving.
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