Pesto-filled Eggplant Rolls Are an Antipasto Favorite

I agree with the imam who, legend has it, became so ecstatic while eating a lavish eggplant dish that he fainted. Others insist that the imam passed out when he heard how much olive oil was used in this Turkish dish we know as Imam Bayildi – which means the “imam swooned.” Eating this rich purée, still served at Mediterranean restaurants, certainly makes me contemplate leaner ways to enjoy meaty eggplant.

Eggplant soaks up oil like a sponge. But cooking it to tender perfection requires using oil to seal the surface and hold in moisture; without it, the eggplant remains hard and dry. Recently, I found a way to roast sliced eggplant using a minimum of oil while getting good results. The trick is to spray the slices or brush them lightly with oil, then lay a piece of foil over them loosely while they roast on a baking sheet. This unsealed cover helps the eggplant steam a bit as it roasts, keeping in just enough moisture for the eggplant to come out tender and flexible without turning to mush. These baked slices may also be used to make lasagna and eggplant Parmesan.

I skip salting the eggplant for this dish. As for choosing male or female eggplant because one may have fewer seeds than the other, agricultural experts say that is a wives’ tale. The brown mark at the bottom of an eggplant, supposedly round in shape if it is male and horizontal if female, is simply not true. So ignore the shape of the mark on the bottom. What matters is selecting small to medium eggplants that feel heavy for their size, with shiny, taut, unblemished skin and a bit of stem attached to the cap. If the skin springs back from a gentle push of your thumb, then it is good; if an indentation remains, pass it by.

The pesto filling for this very Mediterranean dish is enriched by whirling in feta cheese, walnuts and olive oil. Including a touch of broth lets you use less oil.

Making Grilled Eggplant Rolls takes time, but you can spread the steps out over two days. Requests for more will prove that the result is worth it.

Grilled Eggplant Rolls with Pesto

1 cup basil leaves, firmly packed
1 cup baby spinach, lightly packed
1/4 cup chopped walnuts
1/4 cup reduced-fat feta cheese
1 Tbsp. vegetable broth
Freshly ground black pepper
1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
1 medium eggplant, 1½ lbs.
Olive oil cooking spray
1/4 tsp. kosher salt
3 Tbsp. fat-free balsamic salad dressing, optional

In mini food processor, pulse basil and baby spinach until chopped. Add walnuts and feta, and whirl until finely chopped. Add vegetable broth and 3-4 grinds pepper. With processor motor running, add oil. This makes about 2/3 cup creamy pesto. Pesto can be made up to 2 days ahead and kept, tightly covered, in refrigerator.

Preheat oven to 350 degree F. Line 2 light-colored baking sheets with baking parchment and set aside.

With sharp knife, cut off eggplant top and enough of the bottom to stand eggplant upright. Cut off one rounded side, then cut eggplant vertically into 1/4-inch slices, using slow sawing motion. Keep 8 most similar size slices, reserving rest of eggplant for another use (see Note). Cut away peel around each slice. Arrange slices in one layer on lined baking sheets, and coat with cooking spray. Lay foil over baking sheets to cover eggplant without tucking in edges.

Bake eggplant for 10-12 minutes, until slices are flexible enough to roll. Using wide spatula, transfer eggplant slices to plates. Place scant tablespoon of pesto 1-inch above bottom of eggplant slice. Lift up bottom of slice over pesto, and roll, leaving roll seam-side down on plate. Repeat with remaining slices. Push any pesto coming out of ends back inside rolls. Stuffed rolls can be covered and refrigerated for up to 8 hours.

Prepare outdoor grill for direct cooking over medium-high heat. Or, set grill pan over high heat until water flicked on it bounces. Reduce heat to medium-high.

Coat eggplant rolls generously with cooking spray and sprinkle lightly with salt. Using tongs, place eggplant on grill rack, seam-side down. Grill until well-marked on top and bottom, turning rolls once, 5-6 minutes in total. Transfer to serving plate and drizzle with balsamic dressing, if using. Serve lukewarm or room temperature.

Makes 4 servings.

Per serving: 137 calories, 11 g total fat, (2 g saturated fat), 9 g carbohydrate, 4 g protein, 5 g dietary fiber, 256 mg sodium.

Note: Coarsely chop unused eggplant, place on piece of foil and seal as a packet. Bake eggplant at 350 degrees F until soft, 30 minutes. Dress roasted eggplant with lemon juice and olive oil, season with salt and pepper, and serve as side dish. Or mix eggplant with some tahini and lemon juice.

The Author:

Something Different is written by Dana Jacobi, author of 12 Best Foods Cookbook and contributor to AICR’s New American Plate Cookbook: Recipes for a Healthy Weight and a Healthy Life.

The American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) is the cancer charity that fosters research on the relationship of nutrition, physical activity and weight management to cancer risk, interprets the scientific literature and educates the public about the results. It has contributed more than $100 million for innovative research conducted at universities, hospitals and research centers across the country. AICR has published two landmark reports that interpret the accumulated research in the field, and is committed to a process of continuous review. AICR also provides a wide range of educational programs to help millions of Americans learn to make dietary changes for lower cancer risk. Its award-winning New American Plate program is presented in brochures, seminars and on its website, www.aicr.org. AICR is a member of the World Cancer Research Fund International.

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