Can you name the states in the tri-state area? Until about a year after I moved to Connecticut, I still ignored maps and couldn’t tell you that Jersey and New York completed the trifecta. Had you asked me back then, I was likely to throw Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, or maybe even Vermont into the mix. It’s kind of like the “Twin Cities” of my Minnesota home, a term that leads to much confusion. I think (maybe?) Dallas/Fort Worth is sometimes referred to by Texans in the same terms, and I have heard so many hilarious interpretations while making my way through MSP airport. Woman on cell phone: “I’m in Minneapolis-St.-Paul…” Ummm, actually, they are two different cities, and the airport is not located in either one, technically. Just FYI.
If you don’t have a map handy, the best way to identify your presence in the tri-state is by how many Italian restaurants you encounter, and I’m not talking Olive Garden. I was going to reference New England or the east coast in general, but, from my experience, the Italian dining options abound most in the tri-state. Vegetarian options at these establishments are far from abundant, though, and even potential vegetarian dishes are tainted by pancetta or prosciutto. My go-to is eggplant parm. While it’s usually not healthy, it seems to be an authentic representation, and a lot of places do it up in extravagantly delicious fashion. Layers of the largest, silky smooth eggplant slices I’ve ever seen, battered in eggs and bread crumbs and herbs and fried to crispy perfection. You can never go wrong with the crunchy-on-the-outside-creamy-on-the-inside approach, as evidenced by essentially every booth I visited at the Minnesota State Fair this year. In case you’re unfamiliar, the fried eggplant is then layered with rich, homemade marinara and enough cheese to rival the weight of a newborn.
My problem is that, after being introduced to a whole new level of Italian food, I crave it all the time. I love acidity, so red sauce tops my list of most craved junk food, as it’s usually in the form of pizza or pasta, but my waistline cannot withstand the restaurant versions without rapidly expanding. So, I had absolutely no dread or boredom when I saw the second eggplant dish pop up in my Tour de Gratins. The first, here, is not so gluten free, but today’s gluten free eggplant parm bake, without breadcrumbs and only a moderately sized ball of cheesy goodness, feels just as satisfying and homey and will probably replace the former as my go-to vegetarian Italian main dish.
I’ve tried quite a few eggplant parm recipes, and most of them are tedious, if rewarding. You may look at this gluten free eggplant parm bake recipe and roll your eyes at pre-broiling the eggplant, but it’s much easier and way less messy than turning your home kitchen into a breading station. You could roast up the eggplant in advance, but no matter when you do it, the eggplant cooks in about the same time as it takes to make the tomato sauce. Coincidence? I think not.
Broiling eggplant and making your own sauce might seem like a production (okay, it’s a minor production), but that’s really all there is to it. Assembling the final bake, whether in individual ramekins or a big baking dish, takes no time at all, and before you know it the thing is in the oven filling your space with the smell of garlic and general Italian goodness.
For another healthy Italian entrée that’s basically made for fall, Jessica’s fall harvest roasted veggie lasagna looks pretty insane, and by insane I mean I want it to magically appear next to me on the couch right now. I sat next to Jessica during last weekend’s Tasty Food Photography workshop, and she has the privilege of being the first Canadian blogger I’ve ever met! She’s so sweet, a registered dietitian (I’m always envious of RD’s, since I think I missed my educational calling in that area), and shoots scrumptious photos in a house with supposedly only one tiny good window. I’m not sure I believe that after drooling over her photos :) Her website is PACKED with solid, useful nutrition info, like how to best feed your growing baby (she has an adorable one). I got entirely consumed with her baby posts, and yet there is no infant in my home or on the way. Studying for someday!
- 2 large eggplants (3 - 4 lbs. total)
- About ⅓ C olive oil (or olive oil spray)
- Kosher or sea salt
- Fresh ground black pepper
- 1 recipe (3½ C) quick chunky tomato sauce
- 8 oz. (1 ball) mozzarella, grated
- ½ C grated parmesan cheese
- Fresh herbs for garnish, optional
- Preheat broiler and move oven rack close to it. Slice eggplant ⅓" thick (medium thickness) and place as many slices as will fit into a single layer on a rimmed half sheet pan. Brush (or spray) both sides of slices with olive oil. Broil until starting to brown, 4 to 7 minutes, then flip slices over and broil second side until lightly browned. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and set aside on another sheet pan. Repeat process until all eggplant is broiled.
- Reduce oven temp to 375 (F) and move rack just above middle position. Spray or lightly coat 4 large ramekins or a 3 qt. baking dish with olive oil. If you made tomato sauce in advance, heat until warm.
- To assemble, spread half the sauce in the bottom of the ramekins or baking dish. Cover with a layer of half the eggplant. Top with all of the mozzarella, then half the parmesan. Create another layer of the remaining eggplant, then top with the remaining sauce. Top with the rest of the parmesan and a sprinkle of salt and pepper.
- Bake (if using ramekins, place on a baking sheet) about 30 minutes, until top is lightly browned, cheese is melted, and sauce bubbles around the edges. Serve almost immediately so the cheese stays melty. Top with some fresh basil, parsley, or oregano, if you have it.
Ongoing experimentation always leads me back to not salting eggplant slices. I find it to be unnecessary and never notice a difference in taste. If you're sensitive to bitterness and notice an issue with eggplant where you live, feel free to take the step of sprinkling sliced eggplant with kosher salt, letting stand 30 minutes in a colander, then patting dry.
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