Monday, September 30, 2013
Having lived for years with someone who is lactose intolerant, I have a ridiculously low bar for excitement when it comes to dairy products. If a caterer lays out a boring old tray of econo-cheddar and crackers at a reception, my heart thrills. I recently attended a weekend full of gourmet food of all sorts, but what I remember more than anything is a simple buttery grilled cheese. It's possible I have a problem.
But I would wager that, despite the extenuating circumstances, my fascination is not all that unique. Because cheese? It is really, really good. And even though it's not usually put at the top of such lists, I'd argue that ricotta — good ricotta — is one of the best cheeses of all. And when that ricotta is wrapped in fried eggplant and baked in tomato sauce, well...
I had been lusting over this recipe for a while, and it seemed like the perfect time to give it a try. The last of the summer eggplants and tomatoes are still in the markets, and the rising autumnal chill calls out for just this sort of oven-baked, cheesy warmth (as making a long-baked dish is my favorite tactic for delaying turning on the furnace). I had my doubts about the lemon juice and zest— would it destroy the cheesy comfort with its sourness? But really, it's just perfect. There's no sourness, just a fresh flavor, that's a lovely match for the long-cooked tomato sauce and caramelized eggplant. And, of course, the cheese.
adapted from Tartine Bread
serves ~6 (~18 rolls)
2 globe eggplants
oil for frying (they recommend olive oil, but for those with tighter budgets, any other high-heat oil, or a mix of that and olive oil, will be fine)
2 cups whole milk ricotta
~1/3 cup dry, unseasoned breadcrumbs
juice and zest of 1 lemon
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
1/2 teaspoon coarse salt
~ 2 cups tomato sauce (I used the late great Marcella Hazan's tomato butter sauce)
~1/4 cup heavy cream
Parmesan (or a similar cheese) for serving
Slice the eggplant, using a mandoline or a sharp knife, the long way into 1/4-inch planks. Layer in a colander, salting generously with coarse salt between the layers. Let sit at least an hour, then give a good press to push out the liquid. Blot dry.
Pour about an inch of oil into a heavy skillet, and heat to temperature over a medium-high heat (if you have a thermometer, you want it to read 360° Fahrenheit). Fry the eggplant slices (without crowding the pan), until they begin to color, ~3-4 minutes. Remove the slices with tongs, and set on a paper-lined plate or a rack/colander to drain. Repeat with the remaining eggplant (if desired, you can do this step a day in advance). If the slices crisp up a bit, you can put them in a covered container, and they'll soften back up (another reason cooking them in advance works beautifully).
When all of the eggplant has been fried, heat the oven to 425° Fahrenheit. In a bowl, mix together the ricotta, breadcrumbs, lemon juice and zest, thyme and salt. Taste and adjust seasoning as needed.
To assemble the casserole, pour the tomato sauce down on the bottom of a mid-sized casserole dish (or a couple small ones). Take a slice of the fried eggplant, and place a lump of filling at the wide end (~1-2 tablespoons, depending on the size of your eggplant), and roll it up. Place in the casserole dish, seam side down. Repeat with the remaining eggplant and filling. When you're finished, pour a bit of cream over each of the rolls to moisten (it's fine if it runs into the sauce).
Bake, uncovered, until the sauce cooks down around the edges of the pan, and the rolls darken a bit, ~20—25 minutes. Serve warm, with a grating of cheese over the top.