CANNELLONI DI MELANZANE: AN APPRECIATION OF THE UNDER APPRECIATED
I feel like eggplants get a bad rap. I feel like even the people who like them or plant them in their home garden sometimes do so simply because they feel they should. On certain restaurant menus eggplant dishes can come across as either obligatory homages to immigrant roots or oddly shaped stakes in the ground for militant veganism—thrown either in dark corners of the pasta section at the behest of Uncle Remo or deified front and center for some kind of patchouli-stank street cred. On the Italian menu, eggplant is definitely as old school as the gingham tablecloth, wicker basket Chianti and complimentary spumoni. But maybe, just maybe there’s a reason for its stubborn endurance—and maybe there’s some things slightly less “eggplant parm” to be done with it.
The eggplant really is a beautiful vegetable. A little love and time can transform it from a bitter-bland sponge into something silky, filling and unctuous. I remember a chef I used to work for throwing it out there as a lunch special with a little salsa crudo over fresh pasta and it was a thing of beauty, a thing of beauty that incidentally didn’t sell very well. At my friend’s pizzeria in Boise, it’s one of the most subtly amazing, tasty and underappreciated items on his menu.
This is my own take, a play on cannelloni crepes that combines eggplant with goat cheese—one of the most outstanding marriages of flavor and texture that I know of. In place of the pasta I use thinly sliced, lightly sautéed eggplant. It lacks the eggplant hammer of a really nicely cooked thick piece of the stuff, but in my mind it makes up for it with (admittedly limited) cleverness. I like to serve the crepes under a quick tomato sauce with extra red pepper flake, the heat only elevating what the goat cheese brings. Enjoy it with your vegetarian buddies for a break from the obligatory grilled veggie burgers or I-can’t-believe-it’s-not dogs. Enjoy it because eggplant deserves a little extra time in the sun. Or enjoy it with a bottle of Primitivo or other Southern Italian red and then you’ll really be in business.
Cannelloni di Melanzane
1-2 large eggplants
6oz goat cheese
6oz ricotta cheese
Quick tomato sauce with extra pepper flakes
Start your tomato sauce, letting it simmer as you attend to the crepes.
Slice your eggplant at an angle in thin slices about 1/8-1/4 inch thick–you want as much surface area as possible. At this point you can salt the slices heavily and drain them for 40 minutes or so—I’ve skipped this in the past without any ill effects.
Preheat your oven to 400.
Mix the cheeses, adding just enough mozzarella to give a little body once melted. Season with freshly grated nutmeg, salt and pepper and set aside.
Heat a good amount of oil in a skillet. Rinse the eggplant slices if you salted them. Dust each slice lightly with flour and fry in batches just enough to soften them. Drain them on wire racks or paper towels as you finish.
When all the eggplant has been sautéed off, put a generous spoonful of the cheese mixture in each slice and roll up like a crepe. Place the crepes in a casserole or lasagna pan. When all crepes have been built, pour the tomato sauce over the top. Finish with more grated Parmigiano and a few slices of the mozzarella. Bake until everything bubbles and is heated through. Garnish with fresh basil. Eat.