Monday, May 16, 2011

Rolled Eggplant - Rollatini di Melanzane - with Fresh Tomato Sauce

Several years ago my father, who was 91 years old at the time, treated my four sisters and me on a trip to Italy. Our destination was the birthplace of my mother and father near the seaside town of Amantea in the Calabria region of Italy. Our journey began in Rome, then to Sorrento and sights nearby. Before leaving Sorrento for the final leg of our trip to Amantea, we participated in a half day cooking class arranged through The International Kitchen, a culinary tour company based out of Chicago, Illinois. The class took place in a charming boutique hotel about 10 km from Sorrento with beautiful views of the Gulf of Naples. 

As part of our private instruction we each prepared a complete meal which was then served to us by the hotel staff on their lovely outdoor terrace.  The meal, which we all prepared individually, consisted of a simple tomato sauce using fresh cherry tomatoes, rolled eggplant, gnocchi Sorrento style, potato crusted baked fish, and a simplified version of tiramisu. The venue was spectacular and Chef Carmen made the experience both instructive and great fun for all of us. We left happy, satiated, with recipes in hand and ready to do it all over again.

I have wanted to prepare the rolled eggplant recipe from the class for a very long time now. Until just this week however, I simply wasn't willing to pay the $2.69 per pound price for a good sized eggplant. Now my local Kroger store is featuring them as part of their 10 for $10 campaign  and the produce market I like to frequent has them at $.69 each. At last, a price I could palate and the right time to finally relive my very fond memories of making this dish with family. 

The dish is simply eggplant stuffed with cheese and then topped with a simple tomato sauce made with fresh cherry tomatoes. It was prepared as a side dish in our cooking class, but could easily be served as a light main dish. I paired the eggplant with some spaghetti for my husband and myself which was more than enough for a meal.  Both the sauce and eggplant are quite rich and with the use of fresh basil incredibly flavorful.

There are many versions of this dish, with most using additional ingredients. This, like so many authentic Italian dishes, is very simple, as you can see in ingredients and preparation. Both the rolled eggplant and the tomato sauce call for basil. Make sure you use fresh basil as it is an important flavor base for this dish. Dried is simply not a suitable substitute. This recipe makes just enough for 2-3 people as a main dish and probably 4-5 as a side dish, so by all means double or triple the recipe for more servings.

Rolled Eggplant – Melanzane di Rollatini

Ingredients for tomato sauce:
1 large clove garlic, minced
1 16 oz. package cherry or grape tomatoes cut in half
3 T. good olive oil
3T. fresh basil, chopped or chiffonade
Sea salt or Kosher salt

Ingredients for rolled eggplant:
1 large eggplant
olive oil for frying
1 bulb fresh Mozzarella cheese, sliced into 1/8" slices
6 T. Parmesan cheese, grated
Several fresh basil leaves for eggplant and garnish

Steps to preparing the combined dish:

1.      Assemble all tomato sauce ingredients.
2.      Assemble all eggplant ingredients.
3.      Peel the eggplant and slice lengthwise into ¼ inch slices.
4.      Sprinkle eggplant with salt and place in a bowl or dish and let rest for 5 minutes or more. This eliminates the bitterness from the eggplant and slightly softens them.
5.      While the eggplant is resting, start the tomato sauce by heating a large 12 inch skillet.  Add the olive oil and when hot, turn the temperature down to med-hi and add the minced garlic. Fry for just a minute -- don’t let it brown. Now add the tomatoes, half the basil and season with salt. Cook about 10 minute still tomatoes have broken down into a saucy consistency. Add a little water if necessary. Turn off heat.

6.      While the sauce is cooking and the eggplant has finished resting, rinse the eggplant slices in running water, then pat dry.
7.      In a heated skillet lightly coat with olive oil, fry the eggplant slices in batches on med-hi heat till both sides are very lightly browned and soft, but not mushy. Drain on a paper towel.
8.      Put half the finished tomato sauce in a baking dish.

9.      On each eggplant slice, place a slice of the Mozzarella cheese, 1 tsp. of the Parmesan cheese and a leaf or two of basil and roll up. Place each roll, end side down into the baking dish on top of the sauce.
10.   Cover with the remaining sauce. Sprinkle with more Parmesan.
11.   Bake, uncovered, in a 375 degree oven for approximately 20 minutes till the cheese inside the rolls is melted and the sauce is bubbly.

12.   Chiffonade or tear more basil (don’t do this beforehand as the basil will begin to blacken) and sprinkle over the top to garnish and serve.

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