Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Eggplant Sandwiches with Spinach and Cheese

Eggplant stands in for slices of bread in this intriguing recipe, sandwiched around a savory spinach-and-cheese filling.  I wanted to make this recipe while the last of the season's eggplant is at the market; at its best only through early fall, eggplant can become quite bitter out of season.  When selecting your eggplant, be sure to choose ones that feel heavy for their size - if they are suspiciously light, it's a hint that the seeds inside are already large and bitter.

Although I enjoyed the flavors in this recipe, I was quite disappointed in the preparation method, which felt...wasteful in many ways.  I've reproduced the recipe as it originally appeared, but I give my suggestions for improving upon it at the end in my Tasting Notes.

  • 2 (1-pound) eggplants
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt, divided
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 (9-ounce) package fresh spinach
  • Cooking spray
  • 1 and 1/2 cups finely chopped onion
  • 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper
  • 2 minced garlic cloves
  • 1 tablespoon fresh-squeezed lemon juice
  • 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1/2 cup shredded vegan cheese
  • 2 tablespoons vegan Parmesan sprinkles (such as Galaxy Foods)
  • 1/4 cup plain non-dairy milk
  • 3 Ener-G eggs
  • 1 cup dry polenta
  • 4 teaspoons olive oil, divided
  • 14 lemon wedges
1. Peel the eggplants, and cut each into 14 (1/2-inch thick) slices.  Sprinkle the eggplant evenly with 1/2 teaspoon of the sea salt.  Place half of the eggplant slices on a baking sheet and broil for 5 minutes on each side, until lightly browned.  Repeat the procedure with the remaining eggplant slices.  Set aside.

2. Meanwhile, bring the water to a boil in a Dutch oven.  Add the spinach; cover and cook for 2 minutes, until the spinach is wilted.  Drain.  Place the spinach on several layers of paper towels and cover with additional paper towels; let stand for 5 minutes, pressing down occasionally.  Coarsely chop the spinach and set aside.

3. Heat a medium skillet coated with cooking spray over medium heat.  Add the onion, crushed red pepper, and garlic; cook for 4 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Add the lemon juice; cook for 30 seconds, until the liquid is evaporated.  Combine the onion mixture with the chopped spinach in a bowl, and stir in the remaining 1/2 teaspoon sea salt and the black pepper.

4. In a small bowl, combine the shredded cheese with the Parmesan sprinkles.

Note: for the yummiest sandwich, you'll want a gooey, stringy cheese that mimics the creaminess of a cheese like Fontina.  Try the shredded mozzarella from Daiya, which melts beautifully.

5. To assemble the sandwiches, top each of 14 eggplant slices with about 2 and 1/2 tablespoons spinach mixture and 2 teaspoons of the cheese mixture.  Cover with the remaining 14 eggplant slices, gently pressing together.

6. In a shallow bowl, combine the milk and the Ener-G eggs, stirring with a whisk.  Place the polenta in a second shallow bowl.  Working with 1 "sandwich" at a time, brush both sides of the sandwich with the milk mixture and then dredge both sides in the polenta. 

7. Heat 2 teaspoons of the olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat.  Add half of the sandwiches; cook for 5 minutes on each side, until browned.  Remove from the skillet and repeat the procedure with the remaining 2 teaspoons olive oil and the remaining sandwiches.  Serve lemon wedges on the side for a quick spritz at serving time.

Nutrition Info:
7 servings (2 sandwiches, 2 lemon wedges), Calories 236

Tasting Notes:
As noted in my intro, the taste of these sandwiches - when the preparation method was spot-on - was quite tasty: tender eggplant, gooey melted cheese, and a nice crisp breaded exterior. I'd never encountered a recipe using uncooked polenta in this way before, but doing so gives the sandwiches a pleasing crunch.

Unfortunately, the preparation method left much to be desired, and needs some serious tweaks to make sure your final product comes out evenly.  First, as a general rule, eggplant tend to taper, starting narrow at the neck and becoming bulbous toward the bottom.  As a result, half of the eggplant slices were quite small in circumference compared to the others.  The smaller eggplant slices were barely able to contain the filling, and lost much of it in the assembly process, meaning only about half my sandwiches came out as intended.  Although it may seem wasteful, I would recommend cutting 28 eggplant slices from the roundest part of as many eggplant as you need (perhaps 3 or 4 eggplants total). You can then save the narrow part of those eggplant for another recipe.

My second tweak involves the filling - I wanted way more spinach and way less onion, and would alter the ratios to reflect that.  Likewise, I would add more cheese to each sandwich. Except for the rare moment where the full 2 teaspoons melted together in one gooey clump, the overall effect was lost, a shame, because I am a huge fan of Daiya.

Finally, you won't need nearly 1 cup dry polenta for breading the eggplant, and using so much felt like a huge waste.  When I saw how much polenta I had left after putting my first batch of eggplant sandwiches in the skillet, I thought perhaps I wasn't using enough polenta per sandwich.  As a result, I patted the polenta on thick for my second batch of sandwiches - only to find that they didn't cook nearly as well, with a polenta exterior that didn't brown, and detracted from the taste of the overall sandwich.  (You can see a comparison between my first batch, pictured at the top of this post, and my second batch, pictured below).

So even though I followed directions exactly and know that it was through no fault of my own, I can't help being disappointed in the results of this recipe.  They still get a "3" for taste because I love eggplant, but rate only a "2" for presentation, and need definite tweaking.


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