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Published September 06, 2009, 12:00 AM

Hooked on eggplant: Rollups hit the spot

When I was a child, I don’t ever remember having eggplant. When I was in high school, though, I had an Italian friend whose mother seemed to fry eggplant every other day. Their house always smelled delicious. I can’t say that turned me into an eggplant enthusiast, but I did eat one or two of those thick slices of chewy Italian bread with a slice of fried eggplant and homemade tomato sauce slapped onto it that my friend’s mom would make for us as an on-the-go snack.

By: Sue Doeden, Bemidji Pioneer

When I was a child, I don’t ever remember having eggplant. When I was in high school, though, I had an Italian friend whose mother seemed to fry eggplant every other day. Their house always smelled delicious. I can’t say that turned me into an eggplant enthusiast, but I did eat one or two of those thick slices of chewy Italian bread with a slice of fried eggplant and homemade tomato sauce slapped onto it that my friend’s mom would make for us as an on-the-go snack.

These days, I’m hooked on eggplant. It’s especially delicious this time of year when it can be purchased fresh from the farmers market. If you’re lucky, you may have some growing in your own garden. Eggplants are available year ’round in most major supermarkets, but they are best during August through October, their prime harvest season.

Look for glossy, richly colored skin that is free of dimples and bruises. Pick it up. It should be firm and heavy for its size. When very gently squeezed, it should give slightly. Avoid either rock hard or squishy eggplants. Unwashed and uncut, eggplants can be stored in the refrigerator for a couple of days.

Many people swear by “sweating” raw eggplant before cooking it by sprinkling it with salt and letting it rest to remove the bitterness. I’ve included that step in the recipe for Ricotta- and Herb-Filled Eggplant Rolls. I think it’s more important to buy a fresh eggplant. I’ve never experienced bitterness in those that are heavy for their size and shiny, with taut skin and bright color.

In Ricotta- and Herb-Filled Eggplant Rolls, I’ve fried eggplant a bit, just like my Italian friend’s mom used to do. Thin planks of eggplant become soft and pliable when cooked in olive oil, making it easy to roll up with ricotta filling.

I’m enjoying fresh herbs from my garden and have used them in the ricotta filling. If you don’t have access to fresh herbs, just remember this rule of thumb: Use 1 teaspoon of dried herbs to replace 1 tablespoon of fresh herbs. In this recipe, the most delicate flavor and fragrance will come from the fresh herbs.

Ricotta- and Herb-Filled Eggplant Rolls are lovely served with a fresh green salad and thick slices of crusty bread. They’re also quite delicious nestled up to Pasta with Fresh Herbs and Tomatoes, the recipe I shared in my column last week.

It’s a dish that can be prepared a day or two before baking, which makes it a very convenient evening meal during the week. And, it’s a dish that just may make an eggplant enthusiast of anyone who tries it.

Ricotta- and Herb-Filled Eggplant Rolls
2 medium-sized eggplants, 1½ to 2 pounds in total weight
Salt
¼ cup olive oil, divided
1 (15-ounce) carton ricotta cheese
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil
1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley
1 tablespoon chopped fresh oregano
¼ cup grated parmesan cheese
½ cup toasted pine nuts or chopped walnuts
Freshly ground black pepper
1 cup (packed) fresh baby spinach leaves
2 cups of your favorite tomato-based pasta sauce
1½ to 2 cups grated mozzarella cheese

Cut both ends off of washed eggplant (no need to peel the eggplant). With a sharp knife, cut eggplants lengthwise into ¼-inch-thick slices. Use the 10 slices that are most uniform in size. Lay flat in a single layer on a large baking sheet. Sprinkle with salt and set aside while preparing filling.

In a large mixing bowl, combine ricotta, garlic, basil, parsley, oregano, parmesan and nuts. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Set aside.

Rinse eggplant planks under cool running water and set on paper towels, patting them to dry.

Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in large skillet over medium-high heat. When oil is very hot, add as many slices of eggplant as will fit comfortably in the pan. Sear eggplant, allowing just a few minutes per side. Eggplant will become slightly golden and tender. Drain on paper towels. Continue with the remaining slices of eggplant, adding the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil.

Spread 1 cup of pasta sauce in the bottom of a shallow baking dish, large enough to hold the eggplant rolls in a single layer.

Assemble the roll-ups by spreading the ricotta mixture on one side of each slice of eggplant. Leave a little space at one short end uncovered. Lay spinach leaves over the ricotta layer. Roll up each slice and place seam-side down in the prepared baking dish. At this point, dish can be covered and refrigerated for up to two days. Cover dish with aluminum foil and bake in preheated 350-degree oven for 15 minutes. Uncover, pour remaining sauce over the top and sprinkle with mozzarella cheese. Bake, uncovered, for 15 more minutes. If eggplant rolls have been refrigerated, baking time will be a little longer. Makes 10 eggplant rolls.

Tip from the cook

--Toast pine nuts in a dry heavy skillet over medium heat. Stir until pine nuts begin to turn golden. Immediately turn out onto a plate to cool.

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