I do love eggplant, although I grew up eating it prepared one way - dredged and fried. I made the mistake one time of buying a rather large one because I had a craving for that fried eggplant of my childhood. It was entirely too much fried eggplant and despite the yummy eggplant Parmesan I made to use some of it up, I was totally sick of it after a couple days. For many years, it was a forgotten vegetable for me, but when I saw that video of the stuffed eggplant, I started building my own recipe in my head. A few days later, my husband and I were at local outdoor market and a Greek food vendor was selling stuffed eggplant with a ground meat filling, rich tomato sauce and a topping made of thick bechamel. It was absolutely delicious. The eggplant shell had absorbed the juices from the meat and was soft and unctuous. I made up my mind to experiment with this recipe the next day.
San Marzano tomatoes in the freezer from my garden and I was able to find some small to medium sized eggplants at the store. I picked up the other ingredients I needed and headed home to make magic in the kitchen. The beauty of this kind of recipe is that you can do anything you want with it - just let your imagination run wild.
STUFFED EGGPLANT PARMESAN
3 small to medium sized eggplants
2 large cans of San Marzano tomatoes
1 large yellow onion
4 cloves of garlic
1 8 oz ball of fresh mozzerella cheese
1 cup of grated Parmesan cheese
1 cup Panko bread crumbs
1 medium sized fresh tomato or 12 fresh grape tomatoes
1/4 cup of chopped fresh basil
1/4 cup of chopped fresh parsley
Salt, pepper, dried oregano and red pepper flakes to taste
Start by preheating your oven to 350 degrees. I made my own tomato sauce, but you don't have to. If there is a jarred sauce you like, you can omit this entire step in the process and save some time. However, its really not difficult to make and it's absolutely worth the minimal amount of effort to have a simple, homemade sauce that is full of flavor. Put a medium saucepan over medium heat and drizzle about a tablespoon of olive oil in the bottom. Chop half the onion into a medium dice and add it to the pot with some salt and pepper. While the onion is cooking, open your cans of tomatoes and lift the tomatoes out into a separate bowl and reserve the juice for a later step. Crush the tomatoes with your hand, making sure to break them all up into very small pieces. Once the onions begin to take on a little brown color around the edges, thinly slice two cloves of garlic and add them to the pot. It only takes a couple of minutes for the garlic to become fragrant and begin to brown. That's when you want to add all the tomatoes. Turn the heat to low and let the sauce cook covered for about 45 minutes, stirring occasionally.
While your sauce is cooking, you have time to work on your eggplants. Cut them in half lengthwise so you have two even halves. With a small paring knife, cut the flesh of the eggplant all the way around about half an inch from the skin. This will give you enough space to wedge a spoon in and scrape out the flesh of the eggplant, which you want to set aside. It takes a little work, but what you want to end up with is an eggplant boat that you can fill with stuffing. The skin can be leathery and unpleasant to eat, especially in large pieces. Ultimately when the dish is served, you will be scooping the cooked eggplant away from the skin as you eat it. Put your eggplant boats in a roasting pan, drizzle them liberally with olive oil, salt and pepper them and place them in the oven while you make your stuffing.
Now, this is the fun part and the place where you can let your imagination soar free. I'll tell you when I did, but don't let that hold you back. You can use whatever stuffing you like. Some sweet Italian sausage or ground beef would be good in here. I can imagine making this dish with ground lamb, fresh oregano and feta cheese. It would be yummy with mushrooms, zucchini or even spaghetti squash in the filling. You could add chopped Calamata olives, pine nuts, raisins, any kind of cheese that strikes your fancy or even chopped fresh apples. The possibilities are endless.
If you are using meat, that will be the first thing you cook. Brown it in a large skillet over medium high heat until it is cooked through and set it aside in a bowl to cool. Chop the other half of the onion and the garlic, add it to the same pan and cook it over medium heat until translucent, about 8 minutes. Chop the pieces of eggplant you set aside into bite-sized chunks and add them to the pan. You may need to add a little extra olive oil at this point as the eggplant acts like little sponges and will soak up whatever moisture is in the pan. If you were adding any other veggies, this would also be the time to add them to the pan. Cook everything together and allow it to breakdown a bit, adding salt, pepper, dried oregano and red pepper flakes to taste. Finally, add about half a cup of the liquid from the canned tomatoes and place a lid on the pan. Let that cook for about 10 minutes, or until the vegetables and soft and cooked through. The finished mixture should have a sludgy texture with very little or no extra liquid in the pan. If your mixture is too juicy, turn the heat up to high and let the liquid cook away until you have a tight mixture. Scoop it into a bowl and take your eggplant boats out of the oven and let everything cool off for about ten minutes before moving to the next step.
I like my tomato sauce smooth, but if you like yours more chunky, this is another step you can skip. I used an immersion blender to make a smooth sauce, tasting and adjusting the seasoning as I blended. Cut your cheese into small cubes, dice your fresh tomatoes, chop your herbs and now you're ready to assemble. Add your cooled meat to the veggie mixture, add the cubed cheese, add the tomatoes and herbs, half a cup each of grated Parmesan and Panko bread crumbs and mix everything together. Fill each eggplant boat with a generous amount of stuffing. Ladle sauce over each eggplant boat and cover the tops with the rest of the grated cheese and breadcrumbs. I also ladled some of the sauce into the pan so the eggplant would kind of be floating in a thin bed of sauce as it cooked. Cover it loosely with foil and place it back in the oven. It needs about 45 minutes to cook completely, but take the foil off half way through the cook time so you can get some browning on the top. That cheese will be as hot as molten lava when it comes out of the oven, so let it cool in the pan for at least 15 minutes before you serve it.