Please know this about me: I love fried food, and have absolutely nothing against it. Nada, zero, zip. I love the stuff; I indulge in it quite frequently. But I'm not sure that I completely, one hundred percent agree with the premise that everything automatically tastes better when fried. Hmm...I'm considering it, but am not quite convinced (Did I really just write that?). Certainly, there are lots of things that just wouldn't be the same if they weren't fried. I can appreciate that fried Snickers bars just wouldn't be “fried Snickers bars” if they weren't fried—they'd just be plain ol', finger-lickin' Snickers bars; and that goes double for fried Twix bars, since there are two of them. Fried is fine, and fried is good, and it absolutely has its place at the table. But when you're in the midst of a New Years resolution for a “leaner you” in 2013 for crying out loud, beads of perspiration on your brow as you do your best to avert your eyes from the chili-cheese fries your friend is munching on, or those crispy-fried calamari rings with two dipping sauces that your spouse just ordered in spite of your sarcastic and clearly less-than-genuine “Go right ahead” (translated: “You-know-darn-well-I'm-working-this-resolution-thing-darn-you”), then giving into too many fried temptations will throw a monkey wrench into all of your hard work. And you don't want that. But guess what? When something that's typically a fried fav goes au natural and yet still keeps all of the boldness and zip, then it's easy to stay in the resolution game for the long haul. And who can't get their behind, behind that?
I really love eggplant. I prepare it and enjoy it many, many ways; and one of the comfiest meals I can think of is Eggplant Parmesan—you guessed it, the fried kind. But this particular comfort meal is actually a perfect candidate to be taken to a lighter level; to be taken “au natural”, sans the breaded and crispy-fried crust. Eggplants are like little flavor sponges, and a properly seasoned and prepared eggplant can be a real pleasure to eat, especially with the addition of a little something spicy. Marinating and then grilling slices of eggplant creates a flavorful caramelization and a soft, almost creamy texture; and topping those luscious slices off with a fiery marinara and a sprinkle of salty, bold, authentic Parmesan, makes things pretty irresistible. Now put all of that goodness onto a crusty slice of garlicky toast and serve alongside some peppery greens, and you've got yourself a meal that'll leave you saying, “Fried? What's fried?”
Food in its more natural state, when simply but well prepared, couldn't be any more of a pleasure to consume. It makes you forget you've made a “resolution” to eat better, eat healthier, eat leaner. Of course, that doesn't mean that there's not that occasional fried Snickers bar with your name on it waiting for you, or some utterly delicious little calamari rings with two tasty dipping sauces. Those types of goodies will always hold a special place in the food-lovers heart, of course. Only now, Grilled Eggplant Parmesan's giving them a little run for their money.
Taste what's good and pass it on.
Grilled Eggplant Parmesan with Fiery, Red Wine Marinara on Crusty Garlic Toast with Arugula Salad
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2 Chinese eggplants, sliced into 16 (½” thick) slices on the bias (*see note)
¼ cup red wine vinegar
• Sea salt
• Freshly cracked black pepper
1 teaspoon Italian seasoning
• Olive oil
4 thick slices of ciabatta or other crusty, rustic bread
1 clove garlic, peeled of paper and end cut off
• Fiery, Red Wine Marinara (recipe below)
½ cup finely shredded or grated Parmesan cheese
4-6 fresh basil leaves, torn up, for garnish
6 cups wild arugula greens
½ lemon, to squeeze over greens
(*Chinese eggplants are the lighter purple-colored eggplants, that are longer rather than wider or rounder.)
-Place the eggplant slices into a large bowl, and add the red wine vinegar, 1 teaspoon of the sea salt, ¼ teaspoon of the cracked black pepper, the Italian seasoning and about 2 tablespoons of the olive oil, and toss the ingredients to coat the eggplant; allow the slices to marinate for about 10 minutes.
-To grill the eggplant, place a large grill pan over medium-high heat, and allow it to become very hot; add in a few drizzles of olive oil, and then add some of the marinated eggplant slices into the pan in a single layer (you will need to work in batches); allow the slices to grill for roughly 3-4 minutes per side, or until they are golden-brown and soft (add a few more drizzles of olive oil to your pan if the slices seem too dry); once all eggplant slices are grilled, set them aside for a moment, keeping them warm.
-To make the garlic toasts, turn your broiler on high; place some parchment or foil onto a baking sheet, and place the 4 thick slices of rustic bread onto the sheet; drizzle each slice with a couple of drizzles of olive oil and a sprinkle or two of sea salt, and place under the broiler for a couple of moments, just until the bread becomes golden (don't walk away, as you don't want to burn the bread); remove the toasted bread from the oven, leaving the broiler on, and rub the cut clove of garlic over each piece of toasted bread.
-To assemble, layer 4 slices of the grilled eggplant onto each piece of garlic toast, spoon some of the fiery marinara over top, and add about 2 tablespoons of the grated/shredded Parmesan cheese to cover; place the eggplant parmesan toasts back under the broiler, and broil just until the cheese melts and is slightly golden; remove the toasts from the oven, sprinkle some of the torn basil leaves over top, and set them aside for just a moment to prep the greens.
-Add the arugula greens to a large bowl, and drizzle with a about 2 tablespoons of the olive oil; squeeze some juice from the ½ lemon over the greens, and add several pinches of sea salt and cracked pepper to taste.
-Serve one Eggplant Parmesan on Crusty Garlic Toast per person, along with equal portions of the Arugula Salad on the side.
Fiery, Red Wine Marinara ingredients:
2 tablespoons olive oil
4 cloves garlic, pressed through garlic press
1 ½ teaspoons Italian seasoning
¼ teaspoon – ½ teaspoon red pepper flakes (use less if you prefer less spicy, or more, for more “fire”)
¾ teaspoons sea salt
¼ teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper
¼ cup red wine
1 (28 oz) can San Marzano crushed tomatoes
-Place a heavy bottom sauce pan over medium-high heat, and add in the olive oil; once hot, add in the garlic, the Italian seasoning, the red pepper flakes, the sea salt and the cracked black pepper, and stir together in the oil, to toast for a moment or two, until the garlic becomes aromatic; next, add in the red wine, and allow it to slightly reduce for about 3 minutes; finally, add in the crushed tomatoes, stir to incorporate, and simmer gently for about 20 minutes until slightly thickened and fragrant; keep warm if using immediately, or allow to cool completely and keep in the fridge if using later. (You may also store any unused portion in a container in the fridge—it's delicious when used for pasta, chicken, or as a pizza sauce.)