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Try this lighter take on eggplant Parmesan

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed. The Associated Press

Ease up on cheese and add flavorful marinara sauce.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014 - 12:01 am

I've always been a big fan of eggplant Parmesan. There are a bunch of ways to make this classic Italian dish, but I'm partial to what you might call the full-fat version: thick slices of breaded eggplant that are sauteed, then baked until creamy, and finally topped with tomato sauce and melted cheese.

A vegetarian delight, eggplant Parmesan nonetheless can be very heavy. You gobble it down with gusto for dinner, but discover it still sitting in your gut like a brick the next day. So I wanted to concoct a lighter recipe that still retained all of the ingredients that make my favorite version so wonderful.

Eggplant tends to soak up oil like a sponge, so the first thing I did here was to take a cue from my mom. She used to make an easy but inventive side dish with eggplant, cutting each one into 1/2 -inch slices, brushing every slice with her homemade vinaigrette, then baking them all until they were tender and golden. This limits how much oil they can absorb. For simplicity, I sprayed each slice with a modest amount of oil before baking them.

Unfortunately, this clever strategy created a new problem. The eggplant in my favorite version is breaded. Here it isn't. I was happy to lose the oil, but I didn't want to lose the bread, particularly in a saucy dish like this. So I literally turned the recipe inside out, placing the bread — in the form of croutons — inside the rolled-up slices of eggplant.

The croutons do get tender during baking, but they also absorb and marry the other flavors in the filling: Parmesan cheese, mozzarella cheese and roasted red pepper. Full disclosure: I'm well aware that roasted red peppers are not typical of traditional eggplant Parmesans. I added them because they contribute bulk and good nutrition. And because I love the tang they lend the dish.

Even though this recipe uses less than the usual amount of cheese, my crack team of testers didn't seem to miss it. My secret? The speedy marinara sauce. Loaded with garlic, a bit of oil and a healthy pinch of red pepper flakes, this sauce has so much flavor that folks forget the missing cheese.

A few notes about buying eggplant. I recommend the biggest you can find for this recipe. You'll know they're fresh if the skin is smooth and the flesh is firm to the touch. If you can't find large eggplants, use the smaller ones and just overlap the slices slightly to make substantial roll-ups.

Inside-out eggplant Parmesan rolls

Start to finish: 1 hour

Servings: 6

2 slices large rustic (not bagged sliced) white or whole-wheat bread, crusts discarded and bread cut into 1/4 -inch cubes (about 1 3/4 cups)

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

Kosher salt

2 pounds large eggplant

Olive oil cooking spray

1/2 cup finely chopped roasted red pepper

2 ounces fresh mozzarella, cut into 1/4 -inch cubes

1/2 ounce grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

1 teaspoon minced garlic

2 1/2 cups purchased marinara sauce or speedy marinara sauce (recipe below)

Fresh basil, to garnish

Heat oven to 400 F and adjust oven racks so there is one in top third and one in bottom third of oven.

In a medium bowl toss bread cubes with oil and a pinch of salt. On a large rimmed baking sheet, spread cubes in an even layer and bake on oven's lower shelf until golden brown, 5 to 8 minutes. Transfer them back to bowl.

While cubes are baking, prepare eggplant. Leaving skin on, slice it top-to-bottom into 1/4 -inch-thick slices, discarding end pieces that are mostly skin.

Spray baking sheet you used for bread and a second large baking sheet with olive oil spray. Sprinkle eggplant slices very lightly with salt on both sides and arrange them in a single layer on baking sheets. Spray them lightly with additional olive oil spray. Bake just until barely golden, 16 to 20 minutes, switching sheet pan positions in oven after 8 minutes.

Add red pepper, mozzarella, Parmigiano-Reggiano and garlic to bread cubes and toss well.

Pour half of tomato sauce into bottom of a shallow baking pan. Set aside.

Arrange eggplant slices on a kitchen surface, overlapping a few if they are small to make a wider rectangle (you will need 12 portions total), and divide filling among portions, mounding it in center of each slice. Roll up slices to enclose filling. Place rolls, seam side down, in baking dish. Spoon remaining sauce over rolls and bake on oven's lower shelf until sauce is bubbling, 15 to 20 minutes.

Divide rolls among 6 serving plates, making sure that each portion has ample sauce. Top with fresh basil.

Nutrition information per serving: 260 calories; 90 calories from fat (35 percent of total calories); 11 g fat (3 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 10 mg cholesterol; 34 g carbohydrate; 7 g fiber; 9 g sugar; 9 g protein; 780 mg sodium.

Speedy marinara sauce

Start to finish: 25 minutes

Makes 2 1/2 cups

2 large garlic cloves, smashed

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Hefty pinch red pepper flakes

28-ounce can low-sodium diced tomatoes (preferably fire roasted)

Kosher salt

In a medium skillet combine garlic and oil. Turn heat to medium-low and cook, turning over garlic several times, until it is just golden, 3 to 5 minutes. Add red pepper flakes and cook, stirring, for 30 seconds. Add tomatoes and a hefty pinch of salt, bring to a boil, and cook at a brisk simmer for 20 minutes, or until sauce is reduced to about 2 1/2 cups.