Friday, March 29, 2013

Greek Goddess: Baked Eggplant Stacks

My very own Greek Eggplant with Yogurt and Tomato Basil Sauce

Nothing in the world represents Greece to me more than eggplant.

I was 21, studying away from home and backpacking my way through Europe.
When I hopped a flight from Paris to Greece with an Ancient Greek Mythology class
I truly had no idea what I was about to experience.
During my trip, I explored some of the most beautiful and culturally rich parts of ancient Greece:  from Athens, Delphi and the southern tip, Cape Sounion.  
Me on the Aegean Sea, Cape Sounion: 2003
Temple of Poseidon, Cape Sounion: 2003
Dinner in Athens: Fine Greek Dining At It's Best!
 It was during my visit to Athens that I experienced real traditional Mediterranean Greek cuisine.  Shared plates of moussaka, tzatziki, peppers, dolma (grape leaves) and feta were created to absolute perfection everywhere I went.   The pita was devoured at every meal.   Some of the best dive spots I visited were dined alfresco in places that made you feel as though you were sitting in someone's intimate (and quite rustic!) backyard in their countryside home.  The picnic tables were lined in red & white check, lit by candlelight if you were lucky enough.  At times there were no menus.  Nothing glamorous.
Just good, made to order fare, and just the way the local Greeks would have it.

All of the Greek ingredients were so fresh and full of pure Mediterranean flavors.
The spanakopita (phyllo pastry filled with spinach and feta) 
was unlike anything I had ever tried.
But one thing stood out to me most on my palette and that was the aubergine (eggplant).

It was served in it's purest form, not breaded, nor fried.
It was simply grilled to perfection or broiled in good Greek olive oil- allowing it's natural, distinguished taste to be fully enjoyed.

I remember the moment I took my very first bite of a heavenly dish of eggplant, 
tomato sauce and greek yogurt, I was hooked.
The combination was just unexpected and divine.
And I asked myself why I hadn't thought of this one sooner!

Meanwhile, in my own kitchen:


This time around I decided to bread & bake the eggplant rather than broil it pure in the oven.
I was craving the crispness of a "lightly-fried" texture without all the added calories.

I prepared the 1/2" wide slices of eggplant by sprinkling them with sea salt on a paper towl and leaving them to sit for 20 minutes until much of the retained water was released from the eggplant.  **This step is oh-so important! Eggplant contains so much moisture that can ruin any dish!**

I blotted the eggplants with paper towels afterward and then dipped them in order of seasoned flour; egg (beaten) ; panko breadcrumbs. 
I used individual zip lock bags for these 3 steps - saves the clean up!

After arranging the breaded eggplant slices on an olive oil coated baking sheet,

In a preheated oven at 425 degrees, I baked them for 30 minutes 

(flipping once half way through until each side is golden brown and crispy).

And while the eggplant is baking in the oven, I cook the tomato basil sauce.
It's very similar to all of my other traditional marinara sauce recipes except this one involves only a very few simple ingredients:

 I always love a good canned Cento whole peeled tomatoes and a little Sclafani Tomato Paste puree (this helps to thicken the sauce and give it richness).  I combine with sauteed chopped garlic and some freshly chopped basil along with a tablespoon (or two!) of unsalted butter (a little goes a long way).
I simmer the sauce for about 30 minutes until the consistency is slightly thickened and wholesome.  Add a little red wine for an exceptional kick!

Once the eggplant is baked and the sauce in complete, layer the eggplant slices + with a spoonful of greek yogurt and a little tomato sauce in between each slice.

Top with basil and drizzle with a little good olive oil.
Greek heaven on a plate!

My Baked Eggplant Stacks with Greek yogurt and tomato basil.


Greek Eggplant Stacks with Yogurt & Tomato Basil Sauce

Recipe serves 4.   Prep/Cook time: 1 hour

2 medium - large eggplants
1 cup panko bread crumbs (or stale bread can be used to make your own breadcrumbs in a food processor!)
3 eggs, beaten
1/2 cup all purpose flour
1 cup Greek Yogurt (I prefer FAGE whole or 2% for this dish, but adjust if you prefer) 
2 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
2 tbsps butter
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 cup red wine (optional - for tomato sauce)
1 can (28 - 35 ounces) whole plum tomatoes, drained & crushed by hand (I prefer Cento or San Marzano)
2 tablespoons Tomato Paste puree (I used Sclafani)
8 leaves of fresh Basil, roughly chopped
Freshly ground salt & pepper

Preparation & Cooking instructions:  
 1. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.
2. Rinse and Clean the eggplant.  Slice the eggplants into 1/2" wide slices crosswise (discarding any smaller slices of the eggplant, keeping slices that are similar in size).
2.  Lay the eggplant slices on paper towels and sprinkle each side of the slices with sea salt.  Let sit for 20 minutes.  Then blot the eggplants with paper towels to absorb the excess moisture.
3.  In 3 plastic zip lock bags (each bag with 1 dipping ingredient), coat the eggplant slices in batches in the flour (seasoned with salt & pepper), then the egg, and then the break crumbs.  Shake off any excess ingredients in between each coating.
 4. On an olive oil coated baking sheet, lay the eggplant slices in a single layer (you may need more than 1 baking sheet).  Place in  a 425 degree oven for 30 minutes.  Flip the eggplants half way through until both sides are golden brown and crispy.
5. Set aside and keep warm until serving. 
1. In a large skillet or heavy bottomed pan, heat 1 tbsp olive oil & 1 tbsp butter on medium high heat.
2. Add in the chopped garlic, salt & pepper to taste, saute until soft and lightly brown, stirring often.
3. Lower the heat to medium.  Add in hand-crushed plum tomatoes, simmer for 5 minutes. Add in the tomato paste, stir to combine and until dissolved. Add in 4 leaves of basil, chopped.
5. Simmer the sauce uncovered for 30 minutes, stirring occassionally and adding more salt & pepper to taste.  Add in 1 extra tablespoon of the unsalted butter in the last 5 minutes of simmering.  Add in red wine if desired.
6.  Once the Tomato Sauce is cooked, turn off  the heat, allowing the sauce to thicken and cool for 10 minutes.
1. Layer as follows: Eggplant slice, spoonful of greek yogurt, spoonful of tomato sauce, eggplant slice....and so on
2. I typically use about 3 - 4 eggplant slices per serving/stack.
3. Top with basil and drizzle with good olive oil.
4. Serve warm.

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