Eggplant to the rescue!

I decided to “go healthy” this time around. It didn’t really dawn on me that I tend to gravitate toward the comfort end of the dining spectrum until my friend Karen let me know about her blog, Test Drive Kitchen in which she tests out healthy recipes. Now, I’m not apologetic for my apple turnover, calzone, egg biscuit or Buffalo chicken…but I suppose it wouldn’t be so bad for me to balance all that comfy stuff with a healthy option every now and then! Yes, I have food guilt. Especially knowing the decadent panini recipe I’ve got coming up for Valentine’s Day, I figured now would be as good a time as any to go for something lighter 🙂

Want to skip ahead? Click here for the final recipe!

NOTE: Due to a camera memory card malfunction, most of the photos I took this time around converted to “corrupted data”, so said the LCD screen. I will do my best to verbally depict!

Roasted Eggplant & Red Pepper Grilled Cheese Panini – Attempt #1

  • Bread: Baguette
  • Condiment: Marinara on the side
  • “Meat”: Eggplant, Red bell peppers
  • Cheese: Fresh mozzarella, Italian cheese blend
  • “Goodies”: None

THE INSPIRATION: I should admit that I didn’t set out to do a grilled cheese recipe per se. I did look to try something healthier and to incorporate roasted eggplant, a vegetable I’ve come to love in recent years. Eggplant parmesan was actually my original inspiration for this sandwich – a sandwich with wonderful eggplant and cheese and sauce. For better or for worse, as you’ll see, the translation from a main dish to a sandwich isn’t an easy one. Sometimes you just have to let the ingredients speak to you – this day, they told me they wanted to become a lighter grilled cheese!

THE PREPARATION: I started by slicing 2 Japanese eggplants lengthwise into 1/2″ slices. I had originally planned to use the big eggplants we typically use for eggplant parmesan, but it occurred to me in the supermarket that the smaller, narrower Japanese variety would fit a little better on the bread. I lay the slices on a rimmed baking sheet, brushed 2 tablespoons of olive oil on them, seasoned them with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper and put the baking sheet under the broiler for about 5 minutes. I came a little close to burning them (doh!) so I think 4-5 minutes would probably have been better. I took one for a little taster – nice!

I had originally intended to try this on ciabatta but, once again, the grocery store didn’t carry it (Vons, if you’re listening, please start stocking ciabatta bread!!). So I went with a french baguette instead, which I found out can be a touch more roly-poly on the panini grill than is ideal. More on that later. I cut the baguette into 4-5″ pieces and sliced each piece lengthwise to create top and bottom halves.

THE CONSTRUCTION: I began to layer the roasted eggplant slices with cheese and marinara a la parmesan:

  • a tablespoon of marinara
  • a tablespoon of Italian blend shredded cheese
  • a slice of eggplant
  • another tablespoon of marinara
  • 2 pieces of fresh mozzarella (enough to fit the length of the bread)
  • another tablespoon of marinara
  • a slice of eggplant
  • another tablespoon of shredded cheese
  • a final tablespoon of marinara

Looking at the list now, I should have had a clue that all that marinara probably would not fare too well! But sometimes you just have to try.

I put the sandwich on the panini grill toward the back on low heat and, wouldn’t you know, all the contents slid out immediately! Lesson learned: exercise caution when dealing with tubular-shaped bread and a high-profile sandwich. With the help of a spatula I managed to shove everything back in place and this time moved the sandwich toward the front of the grill. There was much less forward-pushing action this time.

THE RESULTS: Not great. All the marinara really made the bread soggy, which isn’t too appetizing. Obviously, the slippage that occurred when grilling the sandwich was a problem as well. Not only would it have been better to grill the sandwiches toward the back of the panini grill, it also might be better to use a higher grill height (again, to minimize the impact to the sandwich contents). All I really needed was to toast the bread and melt the cheese so grilling “low and slow” wasn’t really necessary – it could have gone on higher heat.

Roasted Eggplant & Red Pepper Grilled Cheese Panini – Attempt #2

For Attempt #2, I cut back on the marinara, adding it only on top of each eggplant slice and not directly onto the bread. I raised the heat on the grill to 350 degrees to try to melt the cheese faster and get more of a toast on the bread. Finally, I flattened the sandwich with my hand first to minimize the chance of everything sliding out.

THE RESULTS: Still not quite what I’d hoped for. Flattening the sandwich prior to grilling definitely improved the slide factor – it stayed pretty intact for the most part this time. Even though I didn’t apply the marinara directly to the bread, it still made its way on there and became soggy. It also just plain didn’t look that good. I needed to turn this thing around!

Roasted Eggplant & Red Pepper Grilled Cheese Panini – Attempt #3

All right, we were gonna get a good sandwich here! I abandoned the marinara altogether – no soggy bread on my watch! But I still wanted to see something red and flavorful between the bread. I pulled out my jar of roasted red bell peppers (leftover from my Inaugural Experiment) and cut a piece to fit the sandwich. So now I had just cheese and vegetables on the sandwich – no condiments. Perhaps this sandwich wanted to be a grilled cheese after all! By using the eggplant and red pepper I was able to cut out some of the cheese yet still have great flavor. A healthy alternative for those of us still honoring our New Year’s resolutions to eat better.

THE RESULTS: Aha! This one was good. No soggy bread – hurray! It was warm and crispy and cheesy just like a good grilled cheese should be. Now, I do still love my marinara. My husband thought of the perfect solution – marinara for dipping on the side! That way the sandwich can still benefit from that zesty kick (just like the classic grilled cheese and tomato soup combo) without having the sauce spend a long time seeping into the bread and getting soggy.

Click here for the final recipe!


KathyPanini Happy, online since 2008, is more than just a sandwich blog. Here, you'll find hundreds of my original panini recipes, my guide to choosing a panini press and a whole lot of other creative uses for the panini press.
~ Kathy Strahs
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