In case you don't already know this, we love pasta. We also love eggplant and always look for new ways to showcase this late-summer garden gem. So when Tony suggested making grilled eggplant rolls stuffed with tomato sauce-tossed spaghetti, I was all in.
The eggplant, or melanzane as it's called in Italy, is a staple in Sicilian cuisine, where it appears in a variety of different specialties including pasta dishes, caponata and parmigiana, to name a few.
I've had pasta tossed with eggplant on several occasions in the form of a popular Sicilian dish called Pasta alla Norma, which I first enjoyed in the beautiful, historic city of Taormina. But I've never had eggplant wrapped around pasta before, and was eager to see if it tasted as good as I imagined.
In a word: better. These rolls are a great example of everything we love about Sicilian cuisine. They're easy to make, of the season and a great balance of flavor, texture and nutrition. They also feature "pasta in red sauce," which is always a plus for Tony. We used our Easy Tomato Sauce recipe for the spaghetti, but you could make things even simpler and use your favorite store-bought sauce.
A bit of freshly grated fontina cheese is also in the middle, along with a sprinkling of Parmesan and Romano cheese on the top. Throw in some fresh herbs in the form of parsley and basil, as well as a drizzle or two of extra virgin olive oil, and it's hard to go wrong with this dish.
When buying eggplant, Tony recommends looking for ones that are medium to small in size, as larger eggplants tend to have more seeds, which can result in a bitter flavor. While there are at least a dozen or so varieties of eggplant, the classic Imperial Black Beauty is our preference for this recipe and it's widely available in our local grocery stores and farmers markets. This variety is the perfect size for the roll-ups, as opposed to the round balls and long skinny types that are also on display this time of year.
To slice the eggplant, use a sharp knife to cut the stem off, as well as a small slice from the bottom of the plant so that it can stand upright with assistance. On a cutting board, stand the eggplant up and slice lengthwise, from top to bottom, into pieces about ¼-inch thick. Before grilling, we toss the sliced eggplant with a little extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper until just evenly coated.
Make sure your grill is hot, clean and lubricated before cooking the eggplant, which will prevent the slices from sticking to the grill's surface. Grill for about three minutes on each side until marks are achieved, then remove from grill and set aside to cool.
This is an excellent way to use leftover pasta, and we used spaghetti from a meal earlier in the week. Long noodles are best for these rolls, as they hold together better than a short noodle will. Linguini, angel hair or fettuccine would also work well.
Eggplant is a terrific source of fiber, as well as vitamins B1, B6 and K, and even folate and potassium. And when it's wrapped around sauce-laden pasta and cheese, it's not only good for you, it's also delicious.
Grilled Eggplant Pasta Rolls
Makes approximately 12 rolls, serves 4 to 6 as main course
2 medium-sized eggplants, sliced lengthwise, skin on
Extra virgin olive oil for drizzling (about 2-3 tablespoons)
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
8 ounces cooked spaghetti (½ a standard package)
1½ cups marinara sauce
1 cup fontina cheese, shredded (fresh or packaged mozzarella also work)
½ cup grated Romano/Parmesan blend
2 tablespoons fresh parsley, finely chopped, stems removed
8 medium leaves fresh basil, cut in strips (chiffonade style)
Pre-heat grill to high heat and make sure it is clean, hot and lubricated before grilling.
Wash the eggplants and cut lengthwise into strips about ¼-inch thick. Place the sliced eggplant in a shallow dish or baking sheet and lightly drizzle with 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper. Toss to coat evenly.
Place eggplant on the hot grill and cook for 3 minutes on each side until grill marks are achieved, being careful not to burn the eggplant. Remove and cool.
Pre-heat oven to 400 degrees.
In a saute pan, toss the cooked spaghetti with marinara sauce over medium heat until evenly coated and hot.
Place approximately 1/3 cup spaghetti at wide end of eggplant slice, top with 1 tablespoon fontina cheese, then carefully roll the slice upwards, making sure spaghetti doesn't spill out (remove some pasta if necessary). Once rolled, secure with toothpick to hold.
Place eggplant rolls on baking sheet or in a shallow dish, top with Parmesan and Romano cheese blend and bake in 400-degree oven until cheese is melted, about 5 to 8 minutes.
Remove and top with freshly chopped parsley and basil and a final drizzle of extra virgin olive oil. Serve 2-3 rolls per person as main course.
"Home With the Lost Italian" is a weekly column written by Sarah Nasello featuring recipes by her husband, Tony Nasello. The couple owns Sarello's in Moorhead and lives in Fargo with their 10-year-old son, Giovanni. Readers can reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org and their blog at www.thelostitalian.areavoices.com.