Sunday, July 17, 2011

Grilled Eggplant Sandwiches with Red Onion, Tomato & Fresh Mozzarella

I have a long-standing distaste for eggplant. As a kid, when I tried my grandmother's eggplant Parmesan, I was shocked. Her ravioli, Italian wedding soup, pasta (which she always called "macaroni) and incredible repertoire of Italian cookies were so delicious, so perfectly crafted through decades of practice, each all fantastic in their own right. But this - this mushy, squishy stuff - people actually liked this? And indeed, like it they did. At age 10 (which was probably the last time I ate eggplant, until tonight) I was so utterly horrified by the texture of the vegetable that I had effectively sworn it off.

But 1) it is eggplant season, 2) in theory we all must grow up eventually, and 3) "eggplant" is my favorite color, so I thought it was time I give them another chance. And Brady, the resident eggplant-parm connoisseur, told me that if I like grilled portobellos, then the texture of eggplant would probably not gross me out anymore. There are many varieties of eggplant, and I was lucky enough to find one of the fanciest-looking ones at my very own grocery store:

 This sandwich, which is somewhat like a Mediterranean veggie burger, combines two to three slices of grilled eggplant with fresh tomato, mozzarella, some thinly sliced red onion with a bit of balsamic vinegar on bakery rolls. The Kaiser rolls we had on hand were slightly over-sized with respect to the circumference of the eggplant, so for high presentation points you probably want to use a globe eggplant and/or smaller buns, or toasted English muffins (why didn't I think of that before?). Likewise, larger balls of mozzarella make for better stacking. My recipe serves two:

1 eggplant of any variety, sliced crosswise into 1/4 inch-thick rounds
1 large ball of fresh mozzarella, sliced into 1/4 inch-thick slices 
1 slicing tomato, cut into... you guessed it, 1/4 inch-thick slices
1 small red onion, thinly sliced
2 buns or English muffins
Balsamic vinegar
Red or white wine vinegar
Cooking spray
Olive oil
Salt and pepper

1. Line a tray or platter with paper towels. Lay the rounds of eggplant on the paper towels in a single layer. Salt generously on both sides and allow to sit while you prepare the other ingredients.*
2. In a shallow dish, combine 1 tablespoon of the balsamic vinegar and 1 tablespoon of red or white wine vinegar, and a sprinkling of salt and pepper. Place sliced onions and tomatoes in the dish and turn to coat.
3. Spray a grill pan with cooking spray and heat it up over high heat.
4. When the eggplant slices have been sitting for at least 15 minutes, pat dry with paper towels and brush on both sides with olive oil. Grill for 3-4 minutes per side. Meanwhile, toast your buns, if desired.
5. To build your sandwich, first lay out your buns. Then stack two to three grilled eggplant slices, adding a slice or two of tomato and some red onion on top. Add a slice or two of fresh mozzarella and top with some fresh basil leaves.

Cook's Note: The salting-over-paper-towels step and general concept for this sandwich came from Elise's Grilled Eggplant Sandwich Recipe on Her cooking instructions offer much more direction for using a traditional grill, but they can be easily adapted to grill pans, broilers or George Foreman Grills.
Sandwich construction: Phase 1, where I realize that Kaiser rolls are either too large or too small for this sandwich, and I can't decide which.
So, here's the thing. I can't really claim to be an eggplant convert. I can't say that the texture didn't gross me out a little, or that I didn't wonder what this fancy-looking vegetable was doing with all those thousands of tiny seeds. What I can say is that like many things, I can definitely enjoy it on a "once in a while" basis, or purely as a change of pace from my usual favorite ingredients. It didn't hurt that the other things in this sandwich - the mozzarella, the tomato, basil and red onion - are all among my top-10 favorites.
Still, I really can't hate on this sandwich. It's all the flavors of summer wrapped up in a soft, yummy roll. Get on it!

Quote of the Day: I doubt that the imagination can be suppressed. If you truly eradicated it in a child, he would grow up to be an eggplant. ~ Ursula K. LeGuin

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