We love a good cocktail around here, but more often than not, when we’re looking for a drink to pair with our food, we choose wine. Both of us love the versatility of rich red varieties: making Grilled Steak With Blue Cheese Butter? Red wine is the perfect choice. Having friends over for cheese and charcuterie? Red wine is a must. Hosting a holiday Pork Roast? Yup, you know what to serve with it. As soon as we tasted this wonderfully fruity and spicy Mullan Road Cellars Red Blend, we knew we wanted to drink it with something grilled. We decided to take inspiration from one of our favorite classic dishes, Eggplant Parmesan, and lighten it up for summer. To bring it out into the sunshine, if you will.
We are Not Grill Masters
We’ll let you into a secret: we don’t have the best of grills. We originally moved to our house in the height of summer, and had no gas hookup for the kitchen for more than a week, and with no other way to cook food, drove to the nearest home improvement box store and picked up something cheap and cheerful. It’s somehow lasted us six years: we complain about it every summer, and yet here we all are, locked in a codependent relationship with it until we can put together a budget for something more capable.
We may not be able to perfectly grill a steak (we use a charcoal grill for that), but what we can do is vegetables. And every year, as soon as it’s warm enough, we fire up that thing and slice up whatever’s fresh. This could be eggplant, zucchini, mushrooms, corn when it’s in season, and even a firm leafy green like escarole or romaine will develop some great grill flavors. In this recipe for eggplant parmesan, we’re showcasing both eggplant and tomatoes.
Instead of marinara sauce, we roasted fresh tomatoes (a mix of Campari and cherry) until they blister, soften, and release some of their liquid. A few crushed garlic cloves, a drizzle of balsamic vinegar and a little olive oil is all you need here, along with salt and pepper of course. If your tomatoes are very tart (as some early season ones can be), add a little pinch of sugar to sweeten them up. Late summer varieties might not need the help. Roasting concentrates the tomato flavor leaving you with almost a sweet/tart tomato jam, and the most delicious tomato-ey, garlicky juice to be spooned over the dish at the end. Liquid gold, that stuff is.
While the tomatoes are roasting, you can prepare and grill the eggplant. You’ve probably seen a lot of recipes that call for salting eggplant ahead of time and letting it rest. We don’t find this necessary, especially with small, firm ones. When choosing eggplant at the store, look for ones that seem heavy for their size, with smooth skin. If they’re soft or wrinkly, they’re likely old and bitter (no old lady jokes, please). We love the pale lilac and graffiti variety (also called Rosa Bianca) but they’re not always available. Regular dark purple globe or Italian eggplant is fine for this (but not the long Japanese variety). Huge ones will likely be older and have more seeds, so look for medium-sized ones, about 6 to 8 inches long.
We like to peel the skin in strips, which keeps it from becoming tough. You could peel it entirely if you want but keeping some on helps the eggplant keep its shape. Cut them about a 1/2 inch thick and give them a generous brushing of oil on both sides, as well as a good sprinkling of salt. Place them on a hot, oiled grill and let them cook until they’re deep brown on both sides and soft and yielding but not falling apart. If they look dry while cooking, brush them with a little more oil. This will keep them from turning leathery or tough.
Let’s talk Wine!
A short break to talk about the wine! We love the red blend and think you will too. Mullan Road Cellars is a relatively new label, founded in 2012 by Dennis Cakebread (of Cakebread Cellars in the Napa Valley). Washington State, specifically the Seven Hills, Stillwater Creek, and Corfu Crossing vineyards in Columbia Valley, provides the grapes for this blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc. It’s a great pairing for grilled steak or pork tenderloin and works just as well with assertive cheeses (think blue). Best of all for our recipe, the wine is just as happy hanging out with grilled vegetables, like eggplant parmesan. The red blend has lush cherry and blackcurrant notes with a really nice spicy balance.
About the Breadcrumbs
Now it’s time to make the garlic and herb breadcrumbs for the eggplant parmesan. We highly recommend making your own fresh breadcrumbs, which is nothing more taxing than throwing a few slices of good quality white sandwich bread into a food processor and pulsing it until loose, craggy crumbs form. You can trim the crusts off if you like but we don’t bother. Fresh breadcrumbs will be much lighter and crispier than store-bought crumbs. But if you don’t have time, Japanese panko breadcrumbs will be a better substitute than the Italian-style.
To make them, add a bit of extra-virgin olive oil and minced garlic to a cold pan and then turn it on to medium heat – this gives the garlic time to infuse the oil with flavor before it has a chance to turn brown (dark brown garlic is bitter). When the garlic is fragrant, add the crumbs and toss them around until they turn golden brown and smell like heaven. Tip them into a bowl and let them cool a few minutes before you stir in the chopped herbs and Parmigiano cheese. Season them to taste with salt and pepper and try not to eat them before dinner.
Finishing the eggplant parmesan is simply a matter of assembly. We like to layer a family-style platter with the largest eggplant slices on the bottom, then a scattering of roasted tomatoes (and a drizzle of the reserved tomato juice) and then another layer of eggplant and tomatoes. If you love garlic (like we do), you can add the roasted garlic cloves to the platter or set them aside – they’ve already flavored the tomato oil.
Next comes the cheese. Burrata is one of our favorite cheeses ever and it’s perfect here. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s a hollow ball of fresh mozzarella stuffed with ribbons of curd mixed with cream. It’s rich and decadent in the very best way. If you can’t find it, good fresh mozzarella would also be wonderful. Cut the burrata into rough chunks, being careful not to lose the cream in the middle. Nestle them in amongst the eggplant and tomatoes. Sprinkle some breadcrumbs over the whole platter and maybe another drizzle of the tomato oil, if you have any left. A few fresh basil leaves on top are both beautiful and delicious.
Note: The roasted tomatoes and grilled eggplant can be made up to a day ahead – stored separately in airtight containers in the refrigerator. Warm them gently in a low (250ºF) oven before serving, or serve the dish room temperature (not chilled right out of the refrigerator).
So that’s our weekend evening set. We’ve got friends coming over, so we’ll hang out on the deck enjoying the warm breeze, while sharing a delicious dinner of grilled eggplant parmesan. And, of course, with some fantastic red wine in our glasses. It doesn’t get much better than that. Here’s to Summer!
The Eggplant Parmesan Recipe
Grilled Eggplant, Roasted Tomatoes and Burrata Cheese with Garlic Herb Breadcrumbs
- 1 1/2 pounds Campari or cherry tomatoes (or a mix)
- 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
- 1/2 teaspoon sugar optional (*See note)
- Kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper
- 5 large garlic cloves 4 crushed, 1 minced
- 3 medium globe or Italian eggplants about 6 to 8 inches long (about 4 lb total)
- 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil , divided (plus more for grill)
- 1 1/2 cups fresh breadcrumbs 5 -6 slices good white bread pulsed in food processor
- 1/2 cup chopped fresh basil or parsley leaves, or preferably a mix, loosely packed
- 1/4 cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese
- 8 oz burrata cheese (2 balls, each split into quarters), room temperature.
For the Roasted Tomatoes:
- Preheat oven to 375ºF. Add tomatoes and the 4 crushed garlic cloves to a baking dish (we used 9x13 inch), toss with 2 tablespoons olive oil, balsamic vinegar, sugar (if using) and season with salt and pepper. Roast, turning once or twice, until tomatoes are soft, and skins blister and split, about 30 - 40 minutes. Set aside and reserve with any tomato liquid that may have collected. (Tomatoes can be roasted a day ahead)
For the Grilled Eggplant:
- Prepare a gas or charcoal grill for high heat cooking (a grill pan on the stovetop will also work).
- Chop off the top and bottom ends and peel the eggplants partially in long vertical stripes. Slice eggplants into 1/2-inch thick rounds. Brush each round generously with olive oil (about 3 to 4 tablespoons, total) on both sides and season with salt and pepper. When grill is ready, cook until eggplant is soft and golden brown on both sides, about 5 minutes per side. If eggplant seems dry, brush on a little more oil while cooking. Remove from grill to a plate, cover loosely with foil and set aside. (Eggplant can be grilled a day ahead)
For the Garlic and Herb Breadcrumbs:
- On the stovetop, add 3 tablespoons oil and the minced garlic to a cold 8-inch skillet. Turn heat to medium and cook until the garlic sizzles and turns fragrant but not brown, about 1 minute. Add breadcrumbs and toss in the garlicky oil. Cook, stirring often, until crumbs turn golden brown, 4 minutes. Transfer crumbs to a medium bowl, let cool for a few minutes and then stir in herbs and parmesan cheese. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
- Assemble dish by adding a layer of eggplant to a platter. Top with a layer of tomatoes, and a drizzle of the tomato cooking juices. Then add another layer of eggplant and tomatoes until all are used. Drizzle again with collected tomato juices. Nestle in chunks of burrata cheese, and sprinkle all over with garlic and herb breadcrumbs. Add a few basil leaves, if desired. Serve warm with warm, crusty bread and good, rich red wine.