Utter the phrase “vegetarian meal” and you’re likely to conjure up images of bland piles of leafy green vegetables accompanied by a big bowl of brown rice. For many people, meatless is just another way of saying "dull and flavorless." Others are convinced that it is impossible to satisfy their appetite unless chicken, beef, or pork is on the menu. Although I do not maintain a daily vegetarian diet, some of my favorite recipes have been meatless meals, which haven’t left me feeling deprived of anything.
Everyone who likes macaroni and cheese, raise your hand. What about a colorful plate of pesto past primavera or a comforting, good old-fashioned grilled cheese sandwich with tomato soup? I thought so. Now, can anyone tell me what these three dishes have in common? Bingo. Each of these entrees is a familiar, popular, vegetarian meal, which is eaten by many people across America every day–and there is nothing bland, dull, or flavorless about any of them.
If you’re a “glass is half empty” sort of person (and you know who you are), you might think of all of the foods which are not included as part of a vegetarian diet. I prefer to think of that glass as being half-full, and I look at creating a meat-free meal as both a challenge and an opportunity to discover new recipes and ingredients. Some of the world’s most flavor-rich ethnic cuisines, such as Indian and Moroccan, are based largely on a vegetarian lifestyle, with food that truly tantalizes the taste buds.
This particular vegetarian sandwich was inspired by one of Eric’s favorite things to eat, a Caprese salad, which is simply layers of ripe tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella, and fresh basil, drizzled with olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Since grilled eggplant is one of my favorite things to eat, I combined the two and heated them, open-faced style, on hearty whole grain bread. Eggplant is great to include in a vegetarian sandwich because, like portobello mushrooms, it almost takes on meat-like characteristics. This sandwich is colorful, summery, and very satisfying. Serve them (or mini versions) at your next cook-out or barbecue. Here are a few more tips for making effortless eggplant entrees:
- If you want to use a different type of cheese for this sandwich, use one that melts easily, like the mozzarella. Bries, Gruyere, Fontina , and even provolone would all be good choices for substitutions.
- I like to make these on thickly sliced whole grain bread (I buy the par-baked La Brea brand from the bakery in our grocery store), but they would be good on ciabatta rolls, white country bread, or halved baguettes.
- To add extra color to the dish, try using different colored tomatoes, such as a combination of yellow and red. Multicolored heirloom tomatoes would also make a nice presentation.
- If you absolutely must add meat to this dish, add some thinly sliced prosciutto or soppressata before you add the tomatoes and mozzarella.
Open-Faced Eggplant Caprese Sandwiches
Extra virgin olive oil
1 (1 1/4 pound) eggplant, sliced crosswise 1-inch thick
Salt and pepper
4 tomatoes, sliced crosswise 1/4-inch thick
1/2 pound buffalo mozzarella, sliced 1/4-inch thick
8 large basil leaves, torn
Light a grill or heat a grill pan over high heat. Brush the bread on both sides and grill until crisp on the outside, but still soft on the inside, about 30 seconds per side. Transfer to a platter.
Brush the eggplant slices with olive oil and season generously with salt and pepper. Grill over medium heat until browned on the bottom, about 5 minutes. Turn and grill until tender, about 3 minutes longer.
Top the eggplant with the tomato, mozzarella, and basil. Cover the grill or tent the grill-pan with foil and cook until the cheese melts, about 2 minutes. Transfer the eggplant to the bread, season with salt and pepper, and serve.