It was after a poetry reading held at Tia Chucha’s Centro Cultural and Bookstore in the Northeast section of the San Fernando Valley one night that one of the poets decided we should go to dinner at an Italian steakhouse in Eagle Rock. I wasn’t thrilled with the idea because I wasn’t sure how to get to Eagle Rock from where we were, and I was leading another car filled with some poet friends from Northern California who were counting on me and my mighty cell phone to navigate the L.A. sprawl for them. I was also secretly worried that there would be nothing wheat free I could eat at an Italian restaurant.
After sipping a glass of wine, listening to some jazz and studying the menu at Colombo’s Italian Steak House, I settled on ordering the baked eggplant. My expectations were not high. When my order arrived, I sunk my fork into the tender eggplant and savored the first bite of this exquisitely flavorful vegetarian meal with a sauce so light, I was sure it was simply made from crushed tomatoes. The spinach tasted fresh picked and the fresh mozzarella melted in my mouth. Every bite I took after that was concentrated on exactly how the dish was made because I was certain I wanted to go home and reproduce it. I never asked Colombo’s chef for instructions, so this recipe is based on how I imagine they prepare it. My only regret at the restaurant was that I didn’t request a double order.
2 large eggplants, sliced in 1” thick slices
1 lb. chopped spinach, fresh or frozen, cooked
½ lb. sliced baby bella or white mushrooms
1 lb. Bocconcini sized fresh mozzarella
1 15 oz. can crushed tomatoes
Oregano (fresh or dried, to taste)
Basil (fresh or dried, to taste)
Marjoram (fresh or dried, to taste)
Fennel Seed (to taste)
Parmesan cheese (to taste)
1 tbsp. Coconut oil
Sea Salt or Pink Himalayan Salt
1. Slice eggplant into 1 inch thick slices. Place on a paper towel and sprinkle lightly with sea salt. Let stand 30 minutes, and then blot the surface of the eggplant with a paper towel to remove excess moisture. Do not skip this important step.
2. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place the eggplant flat on a baking sheet that has been lined with parchment paper. Melt a tablespoon of coconut oil in the microwave, 30 – 40 seconds. Brush the coconut oil over the eggplant slices. Bake in the oven for 15 minutes or until tender and lightly browned on top. Do not worry if the eggplant seems to soak up the oil too rapidly. Eggplant will soak up the whole jar of oil if you let it, so don’t add more.
3. Remove the baking sheet from the oven. Transfer the browned eggplant slices to a foil lined roasting pan.
4. Place a heaping spoonful of cooked spinach in the center of each eggplant slice and spread flat across the surface. Place a mushroom slice on top of the spinach. Place one Bocconcini ball in the middle of the mushroom on each eggplant slice.
5. Pour the crushed tomatoes over the eggplant until each slice is covered with tomato. (This dish does not taste as light and fresh with an actual pasta sauce on it, or with too much tomato added, so resist the urge to drown the eggplant.) Sprinkle basil, oregano, marjoram and fennel seed over the entire roasting pan.
6. Follow the spices with a sprinkled layer of good quality parmesan cheese. I never add salt when I am cooking, but you can sprinkle some sea salt on top if you like, although the parmesan is plenty salty.
7. Place in the oven and bake for 25 – 30 minutes.
8. remove from oven and let cool for at least 5 minutes before serving. Mangia bene (eat well!)