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.