CHEF JEFF: One Byte At A Time — Cheesy Eggplant Marinara

Many people who grew up around gardens in this neck of the woods probably aren’t real familiar with eggplant, a delicate tropical perennial plant often cultivated as a tender or half-hardy annual. I wasn’t.

Dad’s garden had all the usual suspects — tomatoes, beans and peas, onions, cucumbers, cabbage, plus a few other vegetables such as radishes, carrots, beets and the like. He never grew some of my favorites such as zucchini, kale, broccoli or cauliflower. And for sure, you wouldn’t find eggplant in his garden.

Well, I am my Dad’s son, so you can be sure that over the years my garden has always contained his favorites. But after writing about food for more than 20 years and learning about the nutritional value of some of the vegetables that he didn’t grow, I didn’t stop with just his old standbys.

You probably know where I’m going with this. The whole family of crucifers have a place in my garden as well as zucchini, winter squash, hot and sweet peppers and melons. And eggplant.

In addition to containing a variety of vitamins and minerals, eggplant boasts a high number of antioxidants and may also reduce the risk of heart disease, may promote blood sugar control and may have cancer-fighting benefits.

I’ve found that eggplant is a nice addition to my marinara and spaghetti sauces and recently discovered another recipe that contains eggplant that has caught my fancy.

Dad might never find the Cheesy Eggplant Marinara as tasty as I do, but he was never one to totally dismiss any food out of hand without trying it. After all, he never shied away head cheese, blood sausage or pickled fish.

Cheesy Eggplant Marinara
1 large eggplant or 2 small eggplants
2 tablespoons olive oil

2 teaspoons kosher salt
25 ounces marinara sauce
8-ounce package Muenster cheese slices
¼ cup fresh basil leaves
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Cut top of eggplant. Slice horizontally into ½-inch thick slices. Toss with salt and set aside. After 30 minutes, pat eggplant dry with paper towels.
Arrange eggplant slices, laying flat, on a parchment paper lined baking sheet. Drizzle with olive oil.
Bake for 15 minutes, then remove from oven.
In a shallow baking pan, spread about ½ cup marinara sauce on the bottom of the pan. Nestle eggplant slices into pan, it’s fine if they are touching.
Put a dollop of marinara sauce onto each eggplant slice. Top with torn muenster slices, then a leaf of basil. Top each stack with another eggplant slice, then spread about 1 cup of sauce over the entire dish. Top with torn muenster slices, to cover the dish.
Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until dish is bubbling and cheese is golden brown. Remove from oven and top with more basil and red pepper flakes. Serve.

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