Still not excited about grilled vegetables, even if they’re assembled into a show-stopping sandwich? All right, then how about if they’re layered with a zesty tomato sauce and topped with melty cheese? Depending on who’s cooking, though, you can be sure that Italian favorites like eggplant parm and lasagna are loaded in calories, something most of us should be eating fewer of. Lots of the calories come from the high cheese content. (Cheese is high in fat, as you know, which has the most calories per gram: Nine, compared to four in carbohydrates and protein, i.e., it’s the most “energy dense” nutrient.) If the veggies are deep fried in usual fashion the calories continue to climb.
In today’s post, the cheese remains – it’s called “parmigiana,” after all – albeit in a more moderate quantity. However, to keep things fresher tasting and heart-healthier, I’m swapping in grilled vegetables for the fried and using home made tomato sauce. The reward is a dish that allows your farmers’ market bounty to shine and has far less sodium, fewer calories, less saturated fat, and no trans fat. (If you fry at home and reuse oil you’re clogging your arteries with trans fats and putting you and your family at a higher risk of heart disease.)
No matter where you shop, next time you’re in the mood for a classic dish that won’t leave you feeling as stuffed as the shells you often find on Italian menus, why not try a healthier recipe? There are a few steps in my version, sure, but you’re getting a lot more nutrition and, if you make a large enough casserole, the dish freezes beautifully for another meal’s time.
Preparation and Assembly
Prep the veggies and cheese. Grill the veggies, as discussed here. You can also roast the vegetables if you prefer, as discussed here and shown in a video here. The mix I’m using today includes eggplant, summer squash, spinach, tomatoes, and onions. Do note that this just happened to be what I had on hand. As always, use whatever vegetables make you happy. Slice some fresh buffalo mozzarella cheese for later use, or use shredded it you prefer. For the ricotta cheese layer, mix 8 oz part-skim ricotta with chopped fresh herbs like parsley, basil, and oregano along with 1 tbsp of olive oil and 2 cloves of crushed garlic. (Ideally, this mixture should sit for 20 minutes in the fridge to let the flavors come together.) Finely grate parmigiana reggiano or romano cheese, a scant 1/4 cup. Set the oven to 400 F degrees.
Assemble as pictured.
1. Spread a layer of tomato sauce on the bottom of the pan and top with one layer of grilled eggplant.
2. Spread the eggplant with a thin layer of pesto, if desired, then top with squash and onions.
3. Spread a layer of ricotta cheese over the vegetables, sprinkle with some parmigiania, then top with sautéed greens of your choice (optional; spinach is shown.) Sprinkle on a touch of crushed red pepper flakes if you like a little kick.
4. I just wanted to show you this picture of tomatoes, which I roasted since I was using my indoor grill and it’s a lot smaller than an outdoor barbecue. Roasted tomatoes have a beautiful, sweet flavor, and cooking them in the oven allowed the dish to come together sooner.
5. Place the tomatoes atop the spinach. (I had extra, happily, some of which I ate directly out of the pan and the rest were included in the next morning’s omelet.)
6. Top with another layer of eggplant spread with pesto. I sometimes add a schmear of goat cheese, too; up to you.
7. Top with another layer of tomato sauce. If you’d like it cheesier, here’s the place to add another layer of the ricotta cheese mixture before the tomato sauce. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. Either way, you may have leftover cheese.
8. Cover with mozzarella cheese and sprinkle with the parmigiana. Give a grind of pepper and bake ~45 minutes, until hot and bubbling and some parts of the cheese are lightly browned and crispy.
Cook’s Notes. Let rest for 10 minutes before serving. Top individual portions with additional chopped herbs and/or grated cheese, if desired. (No pretty picture today, sorry. I was famished.) I serve this dish on its own or with a side of spaghetti tossed with olive oil and garlic if I’m particularly hungry. A side salad completes the meal.
Cook’s Caveat. I love this dish and hope you try it out, but you need to reset your expectations if you’re not used to this type of thing. Do remember that this recipe is made with a lot less cheese and none of the “fried fried” – as I like to call anything fried, because, really, who can even tell what’s inside, and who really cares? (That is to say, yes, I enjoy fried food like any card-carrying American, but I eat in infrequently and have never deep fried anything at home.) Yes, the P.K. Parm still has some cheese but its dominant flavors are grilled vegetables and tomato sauce, creating a lovely Italian meal that’s packed with garden-fresh flavors and disease-preventing nutrients without packing on the pounds.
Now isn’t that worth trying?
Dr. P. K. Newby is a nutrition scientist and educator with expertise in the prevention of obesity and chronic diseases through diet and the relations between agriculture, food production, and public health. She brings together her passions for food, cooking, science, and sustainability through her writing and videos to help people eat their way towards better health, one delectable bite at a time. If you like what you see here at The Nutrition Doctor is In the Kitchen, please subscribe to my blog from the home page, become a fan on Facebook, follow me on Twitter, check out my food porn on Pinterest, watch my cooking videos on YouTube, and peruse my recipe page for soups, salads, seafood, sweets, and more. Thanks for reading!