I've always had mixed feelings about mock meats, especially the highly processed ones that include unpronounceable ingredients.
Still, I was glad to see Eggplant "Meatballs" in Tomato Sauce in Domenica Marchetti's lovely new cookbook, "The Glorious Vegetables of Italy" (Chronicle), because it hadn't occurred to me that Italians thought of eggplant as a meat substitute. They have for centuries, Marchetti writes -- because for the longest time, meat cost too much to take center stage on the table. On a peninsula with such a long growing season, though, vegetables abounded.
"There is magic in eggplant," Marchetti writes, and not only when it's made into balls: "Dipped in flour, egg, and bread crumbs and panfried, sliced eggplant does a great job of mimicking veal or chicken cutlets."
My boyfriend, Carl, isn't exactly an eggplant fan. He raised an eyebrow and shook his head when he saw me roast it, scoop out the flesh, combine it with bread crumbs, egg, cheese, herbs and garlic and form it into balls. But once I fried them and stewed them with a simple tomato sauce (also from Marchetti's book), he dug in.
Eggplant 'Meatballs' in Tomato Sauce
1 large (about 1 pound) shiny purple eggplant
3 cloves garlic
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
28 ounces canned, no-salt-added diced tomatoes, with their juices
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
3 large fresh basil leaves, shredded or torn, plus 1 tablespoon minced fresh basil
3 rounded cups fresh bread crumbs
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
2 ounces pecorino Romano cheese, freshly grated
1 tablespoon minced fresh flat-leaf parsley
1 cup flour, for coating, or more as needed
Vegetable oil, for frying
Grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, for serving (optional)
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Prick the eggplant a few times all over with a fork. Place it on a small rimmed baking sheet and roast for about 1 hour or until the skin is crinkled and collapsed and the interior is completely tender. Cool for a few minutes.
Meanwhile, make the tomato sauce: Crush one of the garlic cloves, then warm it in the olive oil in a saucepan large enough to eventually hold the eggplant meatballs over medium heat. Use a wooden spoon to press down on the garlic to release its flavor. Cook for about 2 minutes or until the garlic begins to sizzle; do not let it brown. Carefully pour in the tomatoes and their juices (the oil will spatter) and stir to coat with the oil. Season with 1/2 teaspoon of the salt; increase the heat to medium-high. Once the mixture is bubbling, reduce the heat to medium-low and cook, stirring occasionally, for 30 to 35 minutes, to form a sauce that has thickened, with oil that is pooling on the surface. Remove from the heat and stir in the 3 basil leaves. Cover to keep warm.
Slice open the eggplant, then scoop the flesh onto a cutting board, discarding the skin. Mash the eggplant flesh with a potato masher or chop it coarsely with a chef's knife. Scoop into a large bowl, along with the bread crumbs, eggs, remaining 1/2 teaspoon of salt, the pecorino Romano, minced basil and parsley. Use a garlic press to add the remaining 2 garlic cloves, then use a wooden spoon or flexible spatula to gently yet thoroughly incorporate the ingredients.
Spread the flour in a shallow bowl. Line a platter with waxed or parchment paper.
Use your hands to form the eggplant mixture into about fifteen 2-inch balls (golf ball size). Coat them all over with the flour, then transfer to the lined platter, gently pressing down on them to flatten them slightly.
Pour enough vegetable oil into a saute pan or cast-iron skillet to reach a depth of at least 1 inch, and heat the oil to about 375 degrees over medium-high heat. If you do not have a thermometer, drop a small pinch of an eggplant meatball into the oil; if it sizzles immediately, the oil is ready.
Carefully add half of the eggplant meatballs to the hot oil; fry until golden brown on the bottom, 2 to 3 minutes. Use a spatula to turn them over and fry for 2 minutes, until golden brown. Use a slotted spoon to transfer them to the sauce in the saucepan, allowing them to drain off any excess oil. Turn them to coat with the sauce. Repeat with the remaining eggplant meatballs, adding vegetable oil as needed and letting it heat to 375 degrees.
Return the saucepan with the eggplant meatballs to medium-low heat. Cook, turning them once or twice, for about 10 minutes. If the sauce seems too thick -- the balls will absorb some of it -- add a tablespoon or two of water, or as needed, and gently stir it into the sauce.
Serve the eggplant meatballs hot, with the sauce spooned over them and a sprinkle of Parmigiano-Reggiano on top, if desired.
Makes 4 to 5 servings
NUTRITION Per serving (based on 5): 280 calories, 11 g protein, 29 g carbohydrates, 14 g fat, 4 g saturated fat, 95 mg cholesterol, 800 mg sodium, 5 g dietary fiber, 8 g sugar
-- Adapted from Domenica Marchetti's "The Glorious Vegetables of Italy" (Chronicle, 2013).