I've always been a big fan of eggplant Parmesan. There are a bunch of ways to make this Italian favorite, 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. So I wanted to concoct a lighter recipe that retained the ingredients that make my favorite version so wonderful.
Eggplant tends to soak up oil like a sponge, so the first thing I did 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 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. So I 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 in traditional eggplant Parmesan. 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 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.
SPEEDY MARINARA SAUCE
2 large garlic cloves, smashed
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Hefty pinch of red pepper flakes
1 (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 ½ cups.
Makes 2 ½ cups.
INSIDE-OUT EGGPLANT PARMESAN ROLLS
2 large slices of rustic white or whole-wheat bread (not bagged and sliced), crusts discarded and bread cut into ¼-inch cubes (about 1 ¾ cups)
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
2 pounds large eggplant
Olive oil cooking spray
½ cup finely chopped roasted red pepper
2 ounces fresh mozzarella, cut into ¼-inch cubes
½ ounce grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
1 teaspoon minced garlic
2 ½ cups store-bought marinara sauce or Speedy Marinara Sauce (see accompanying recipe)
Fresh basil or scallions, to garnish
Heat the oven to 400 degrees 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 cubes bake, prepare eggplant. Leaving skin on, slice it top to bottom into ¼-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 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 among 6 serving plates, making sure that each portion has ample sauce. Top with fresh basil.
Makes 6 servings.
Nutrition information per serving: 260 calories (90 calories from fat, 35 percent of total calories); 11g fat (3g saturated, 0g trans fats); 10mg cholesterol; 34g carbohydrates; 7g fiber; 9g sugar; 9g protein; 780mg sodium.