Eggplant rollatini - an Italian favorite worth making at home
One of my favorite dishes to order at Italian restaurants is eggplant rollatini (sometimes spelled rollatine). In the traditional recipe, thin, lengthwise slices of eggplant are dredged and lightly fried, stuffed with a ricotta cheese mixture, then baked under marinara sauce and mozzarella cheese. Since we weren’t likely to go out to eat (at least not yet), I decided to make the dish myself.
Eggplant, one of the notoriously named “nightshade” vegetables, can trace its origins to the Indian, Asian and African continents. Varieties come in shapes and colors that range from perfectly round white globes to large, egg-shaped, glossy-purple specimens to slender, light-purple examples. Their flesh is spongy and whitish, quickly turning brown when exposed to air.
Nightshade plants are those that belong to the botanical family Solanaceae, which includes poisonous members such as belladonna, as well as familiar vegetables widely enjoyed. Other members are white potatoes, tomatoes and bell peppers. They earned their designation because they all contain a compound called solanine which is toxic in high concentrations.
Imbedded in the flesh of eggplant (often called aubergine in Europe) are tiny, edible seeds that are slightly bitter in taste due to the nicotinic alkaloids (also found in tobacco) that cover them. Unlike many squash or cucumber varieties where the seeds are larger and often cut away and discarded, eggplant seeds are left intact.
The spongy nature of the flesh means that it’s full of water, which may need to be drawn out, depending upon the recipe. In a stew-like dish such as ratatouille, the moisture becomes part of the rich sauce. In eggplant rollatini, the moisture needs to be addressed in an early preparation step, or you’ll be left with a soggy mess.
A generous sprinkling of salt is the preferred method of removing some of the water content of eggplant. Slices are arranged in a single layer on paper towels, doused liberally with salt, then covered with more paper towels and allowed to sit for 15 or 20 minutes. The slices are rinsed to remove the excess salt and then pressed between layers of paper towels to draw off the moisture.
Although the usual presentation of eggplant rollatini includes a breaded exterior to the eggplant, you have another option in the event you’d like to save the fat and carbohydrate calories. For the rollatini in the photo, the eggplant slices were baked briefly to soften them, then filled and rolled, and ladled with tomato sauce and cheese before baking.
As you may notice, these rolls are quite small. This is because I decided what I was going to make before I made sure I had the necessary ingredients on hand. When I stopped to pick up eggplants and ricotta cheese, all I could find was small-curd cottage cheese and miniature eggplant – about 6 inches long and quite slender.
After slicing off a layer of skin, I used a mandolin to cut 1/4-inch thin slices. While these baked under a layer of aluminum foil, I whisked together the cheese filling, spiced with an Italian seasoning blend. As a substitute, you can combine basil, oregano and tarragon to create the desired flavor profile.
Because the eggplant was so tender, the stuffed rolls baked in about 15 minutes, instead of the 30 to 45 minutes you would ordinarily need to bake the dish. And, because they were so small, I was a bit less generous with the sauce and cheese topping. No matter how you build your eggplant rollatini, it’s a dish worth the effort.
Streamlined Eggplant Rollatini
1 large eggplant
1 C marinara sauce
2/3 C ricotta cheese
2/3 C grated Parmesan cheese
1/4 t black pepper
1/2 Italian spice blend
1/2 C shredded mozzarella
Preheat oven to 400 F. Remove the stem end and base from the eggplant. Cut the eggplant lengthwise using a mandolin into 1/4-inch thin slices; discard the pieces that are only skin. Arrange the slices in a single layer on a piece of paper towel. Sprinkle liberally with salt and allow to rest for about 15 minutes. Quickly rinse the excess salt from the slices and press between layers of paper towel to dry. Line a rimmed baking pan with parchment paper or a silpat. Arrange the slices in a single layer and cover loosely with aluminum foil. Bake until slightly soft, but not fully cooked, about 10 minutes. Spread the bottom of a 9-by-13-inch baking pan with a thin layer of sauce; set aside. In a small bowl, whisk together ricotta, Parmesan, egg, pepper and Italian spices; set aside. When the eggplant is ready, place about 1 1/2 T of the cheese mixture at the narrow end of each eggplant slice. Roll up and place in the pan, seam-side down. Pour the marinara sauce over the eggplant rolls and sprinkle with mozzarella cheese. Bake until eggplant is tender and cheese has browned slightly, about 35 minutes. Yield 4 servings.
Traditional Eggplant Rollatini
1/2 C flour
2 C breadcrumbs
2 C Parmesan cheese, divided
1 large eggplant
1 1/2 C marinara sauce, divided
1 1/2 C mozzarella, divided
3/4 C ricotta cheese
1/4 t red pepper flakes
1/3 C chopped basil
Preheat oven to 350 F. Line two baking sheets with aluminum foil and coat with nonstick cooking spray; set aside. Remove stem end and base from the eggplant. Cut lengthwise into 1/4-inch slices, discarding those that are only skin. Place the flour on a paper plate, whisk the eggs in a shallow bowl and place the breadcrumbs mixed with 1 C Parmesan on a sheet of wax paper. Dredge each slice of eggplant in the flour, dip in the beaten egg to coat and then cover completely with breadcrumbs. Arrange the slices in a single layer on the prepared pans. Bake until golden, turning once, about 15 minutes for each side. Spread 1/2 C marinara sauce on the bottom of a 9-by-13-inch baking pan; set aside. In a small bowl, whisk together 1 C mozzarella, ricotta, 1 C Parmesan cheese, red pepper and chopped basil. When eggplant is ready, divide the cheese mixture evenly across the narrow end of each slice. Roll up and place in the prepared pan, seam-side down. Cover with remaining 1 C marinara and sprinkle with remaining 1/2 C mozzarella. Bake until bubbly and golden, about 30 minutes. Yield: 4 servings.