When I was in my awkward early teen years, I used to go to this gym in my town called Body Techniques. This was in the mid-90’s, and it showed. The walls were decorated with pink and teal heartbeat lines, like the kind you’d see on a heart rate monitor, and half the gym was devoted to a windowed aerobics studio where women in leotards did Tae Bo. I never went to the classes; my favorite way to workout was to take an enormous pile of magazines from the communal rack (preferably the ones my mom never let me read, like Cosmo) and climb on the Stairmaster for exactly 45 minutes, while leaning on the handlebars in precisely the way you’re not supposed to.
One day I remember reading an article about “10 things you should never eat” or some such nonsense. Basically, it was a list of foods that you might not think were fattening, but in actuality were really bad for you. I can’t recall all of them, but #1 was fettuccini Alfredo. Breaded, fried, and super-cheesy Eggplant Parmesan also made the cut. I’m definitely not one to see foods as “good” or “bad”–I believe there is room for everything in our diet in moderation–but something about that list stuck with me, and now whenever I see eggplant parm on a menu I skip over it and chose something else.
But the thing is, I really love eggplant. Like, a lot. Even more so when it’s caramelized and golden-brown and baked up with a garlicy, basily, slightly spicy tomato sauce and an avalanche of crunchy breadcrumbs. Over the years, I’ve tried my hand at several low-fat versions and been uniformly disappointed. Then several months ago, I decided to give it one more chance, this time using Mark Bittman’s recipe for vegan eggplant unparmesan. What a revelation. He bakes the eggplant slices with a tiny amount of oil, and then layers them with a quick and simple homemade tomato sauce. The whole thing is covered with an almost absurd amount of panko, which absorbs all that sauce as it bakes, so the slices come out thick and substantial. It was perfect. Well, almost.
I couldn’t help tweaking it just a little bit. First I cut the recipe in half. We are a family of three, and a 9-x 13-pan of anything (with the obvious exception of brownies) is a little too much for us to handle. I found that an 8-x 8-inch pan served four generously. Second, I know Mark is a minimalist, but I thought his sauce needed a little maximizing. I swapped the onion for extra garlic, and added dried oregano and a huge pinch of red pepper flakes. A big scoop of tomato paste and a splash of red wine really boosted the umami flavors. Lastly, I added some nutritional yeast to the panko to give it that cheesy flavor.
Finally I have my ideal, healthy eggplant parm! As you might be able to tell from the photo, if you are serving non-vegans, you can easily sprinkle some mozzarella over their portion before adding the panko. I like to eat this on its own, but you could also serve it over pasta (think linguine) for a more substantial dish. Leftovers will keep for about a week in the fridge.
Spicy Vegan Eggplant Parmesan
Makes 4 Servings
Adapted from Mark Bittman
1 medium to large eggplant, about 1 1/2 pounds
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, divided
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 (28-ounce) can crushed tomatoes
2 tablespoons red wine
1/2 cup chopped fresh basil
3/4 cup whole wheat vegan panko breadcrumbs
1 tablespoon nutritional yeast (optional)
Preheat the oven to 450°F and line a baking sheet with parchment. Slice the eggplant crosswise into 1/2-inch thick slices. Arrange in a single layer on the baking sheet and brush both sides with 2 tablespoons of the olive oil. Season with salt and pepper. Roast the eggplant until softened and starting to brown, 25 to 30 minutes, flipping once halfway through.
Meanwhile, make the sauce. Combine the remaining 2 tablespoons of the olive oil with the garlic in a large skillet. Cook over medium heat until the garlic begins to sizzle, about 2 to 3 minutes. Stir in the oregano, pepper flakes, and a big pinch of salt and pepper. Stir in the tomato paste and cook for 1 minute. Add the crushed tomatoes and wine and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer until the sauce thickens, 20 to 25 minutes.
Reduce the oven to 400°F. Spread about 1/3 of the tomato sauce in the bottom of an 8-x8-inch square baking dish. Top with half the eggplant and half the basil. Add another 1/3 of tomato sauce, then the other half of the eggplant and basil. Top with the remaining sauce.
In a small bowl, stir together the panko and nutritional yeast (if using). Sprinkle evenly over the top and bake until the panko is toasted and the sauce is thick and bubbling, about 20 to 25 minutes. Let rest for 10 minutes before serving.