Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Week 13: Eggplant Stackers (and a Basic Marinara)

Did you feel that? That shift in the cosmos when the calendar flipped from August to September? There’s something different in the air this time of year.

Ragweed, mostly -- but like so many others, I make the mental shift from summer to fall once we get past Labor Day weekend. You know … it’s the return of school, and routines, and activities, and all that.

Our CSA share is shifting, too. We’re seeing apples now, and more variety overall. This week’s bounty included beets, a most-fragrant cantaloupe, carrots, corn, cucumbers, peaches, tomatoes, one Thai chili pepper, and two perfectly matched globe eggplants.

I immediately knew what I wanted to try with the eggplant. I adore Eggplant Parmesan, and this variation lightens up on the breading and cheese. Use fresh tomatoes for the marinara sauce, and you have a seasonal meal for whatever season you put September into.

Eggplant Stackers
(Adapted from The Boston Globe. Serves 4; 2 stacks per person)

2 large eggplant, ends trimmed, cut into 1/2-inch rounds to make 24 slices
4 Tbsp olive oil, plus 4 tsp olive oil (divided use), plus a little extra for drizzling
4 cups fresh marinara sauce (recipe follows) or sauce of your choice
1-1/3 cups finely grated Parmesan cheese (divided use)
8 fresh basil leaves
About 8 ounces fresh mozzarella cheese
1 cup panko breadcrumbs
1 Tbsp chopped fresh parsley

Set an oven rack 8 inches from the broiler element and pre-heat broiler. Cover two large baking trays with foil. Divide the eggplant slices between the two trays, making sure the eggplant is in one layer. Brush the eggplant slices on both sides with oil, using a pastry brush and the 4 tablespoons of olive oil.

Working with one tray at a time, broil the slices for 4 minutes on a side, or until the eggplant is cooked through. Let the eggplant cool briefly on the trays.

Turn off the broiler and preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Cover two 9-inch-square baking pans with foil. (The foil just makes clean-up easier. Skip it if you prefer.) Slice the mozzarella cheese thinly into 8 slices and set aside. (You may not need the whole 8 ounces of cheese to do this.)

Spread 1/2 cup marinara sauce in each baking dish. Set 4 slices of eggplant in each dish, starting with the largest slices. Then build up each eggplant stack as follows:
  • Top each slice with a rounded tablespoon of sauce and a rounded tablespoon of the Parmesan cheese;
  • Place a second slice of eggplant on top, followed by a rounded tablespoon of sauce, a basil leaf, and a slice of mozzarella cheese;
  • Put the remaining eggplant slices on top, and spoon 1/4 cup of marinara sauce over each stack.
Toss together the panko, the remaining 4 teaspoons of olive oil, the remaining Parmesan cheese, and the chopped parsley. Top each stack with about 2 tablespoons of crumbs. This may seem like a lot at first, but the crumbs bake down. (Refrigerate any leftover panko-Parmesan mix and save for another dish.) Drizzle a little olive oil on top of each stack.

Bake for about 30 minutes or until the crumbs are golden brown and the cheese is melting at the edges.

Basic Marinara Sauce
(My own recipe, but similar to dozens. Makes about 4 cups sauce)

4 pounds red tomatoes, peeled (use any variety, as long as they are ripe and in season)
4 to 8 cloves garlic (depending on size), chopped
2 Tbsp olive oil
About 1 tsp salt, or to taste

Set a strainer over a bowl. Cut the peeled tomatoes in half (if they are plum tomatoes) or in quarters (if they are larger, round ones) and squeeze or spoon out the seeds into the strainer, reserving any liquid that accumulates in the bowl. Chop the remaining tomato flesh.

Heat the olive oil in a large saucepot or Dutch oven over medium heat. Saute the garlic for about 2 minutes, but do not let it brown, then add in the tomatoes. Bring to a boil, lower the heat, and simmer uncovered for about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally and breaking up any large pieces of tomato with a spoon or potato masher. If the sauce seems too thick, add in some of the reserved tomato liquid until the sauce is the right consistency for your taste. Add salt to taste.

To peel tomatoes: Bring a deep saucepan of water up to a boil. Have on hand a large bowl of ice water. Cut a shallow X into the bottom of each tomato. Plunge two to three tomatoes at a time into the boiling water for 30 seconds, then plunge them into the cold water. The peel will begin to curl back from the tomato and will be easy to remove. If the peel remains “tight,” repeat the process from boiling water to cold water.

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