Eggplant Involtini with Vegan Ricotta

My vegan eggplant involtini is made by broiling strips of eggplant and filling it with a creamy potato and cashew "ricotta cheese." Topped with a spicy, caper-flecked tomato sauce, this dish is perfect for a cool, summer night.

Without a doubt, eggplant is my favorite summer vegetable. I cook it at least once a week in the summer, much to my hubs chagrin, as it's his least favorite summer produce. My kitchen, my rules, right?

There's one frustrating thing about my summer love affair with eggplant. All my favorite dishes involve turning on the oven, not fun in an 1930s home in a city known as the armpit of the south. Usually, I just sweat and deal. But when we had a relative cold streak a few weeks ago (i.e. highs of the 80s versus 100s), I went a little eggplant crazy. This dish, quinoa baked eggplant and zucchini and vegan moussaka, all in the same week. My apologies to Al Gore (although I think if he had a bite of this he would totally agree it was worth it)

Eggplant may be associated with Italian food, but it was actually first cultivated from wild varieties in India and Asia. From there, it was introduced to Africa, Europe and eventually, America. Early varieties had such a strong, bitter flavor that people thought it caused insanity. In fact, one of the early names for eggplant could be translated to "mad apple."

Over time, less bitter eggplant varieties were cultivated and it earned a much loved status, especially in Mediterranean cuisine. What would Italian food be without eggplant parmigiana or caponata? What about Greek food without moussaka, Middle Eastern cuisine without baba ganoush and French food without ratatouille? Pretty depressing to think about for an eggplant lover like me.

Eggplant contains a wide variety of vitamins, especially B vitamins, but much of it's benefit comes from unique phytonutrients mostly found in the skin. Pro tip number 73 - never peel produce unless you have to! I rarely peel eggplant, even when a recipe tells me to do so. It adds beautiful color and even though the skin gets a little papery in some dishes, it's rarely unpleasant.

One of these nutrients is a type of flavonoid called nausin. Research shows it's a potent antioxidant, particularly effective at protecting the cell membranes in the brain. Eggplant also contains many phenolic compounds, the most prominent being chlorgenic acid, the same compound in green coffee bean extract. Although the weight loss supplement is more marketing than substance, there is some research showing heart health benefits. Studies have even shown a benefit to eggplant juice, indicating it may reduce LDL cholesterol and improve blood vessel function...although eggplant is probably the last vegetable I would want to juice...

Eggplant loves oil - it's spongy texture soaks up endless amounts. Sauteeing, grilling and roasting all seem to go through half a bottle of olive oil. I have no problem with fats, but I do have a problem with using up half a cup of expensive olive oil. Recently, I learned broiling eggplant gives them a lovely charred flavor and moist creamy texture with very little to no oil. If you slice them, they just need a light spray of olive oil. I use my misto filled with olive oil to avoid the propellants in other oil sprays. You can also broil eggplant whole, a simple option if you're making an eggplant dip like baba ganoush or mixing it into a soup - anything where the shape doesn't matter.

Traditionally, eggplant involtini is filled with ricotta cheese. For this vegan version, I made a ricotta with potatoes and cashews. I've made tofu ricotta before, but I wanted a heartier dish. Plus, I didn't feel like cooking another starch. I had a little extra filling leftover, which we ate for a snack, but I bet it would be a really great topping for a flatbread topped with caramelized onions and olives. Carbs on carbs - always a winner in my book.

Eggplant Involtini with Vegan Ricotta
Author: Rachael Hartley, RD, LD, CDE
Serves: Serves 6-8
Ingredients
  • 2 medium eggplants
  • 4 cups potatoes, chopped large
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1/2 large onion, diced
  • 4 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 cup cashews, soaked at least 2 hours
  • 1/4 cup nutritional yeast
  • 1 cup vegetable broth
  • Tomato Sauce:
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1/2 large onion, finely diced
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 1 14 ounce can diced tomatoes
  • 1 cup vegetable broth
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried basil
  • 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • 2 tablespoons capers
Instructions
  1. First, make the tomato sauce. Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a medium pot on medium heat. Add onion and garlic and cook until tender and translucent, about 5 minutes. Stir in tomato paste and cook 1 minute. Add canned tomatoes, broth, basil, and red pepper flakes. Simmer about 10 minutes to let the flavors meld. Stir in capers, turn off heat, cover and set aside until ready to use.
  2. Turn on the broiler. Slice the eggplant lengthwise into 1/2 inch slices. Place on 2 oiled baking sheets, being careful not to overlap. Spray with olive oil. Place under the broiler about 3-5 minutes per side until tender. Be careful not to let them burn, or they won't roll.
  3. Meanwhile, bring a medium pot of water to a boil. Add diced potatoes and cook until tender, about 10-15 minutes.
  4. While the potatoes are cooking, heat a tablespoon of oil in a small skillet on medium high heat. Add the onions and garlic and saute until translucent, about 3-5 minutes. Add the sauteed vegetables to a food processor. When the potatoes are done cooking, drain and add them as well, along with the cashews, nutritional yeast, salt and pepper. Blend, pouring in the broth slowly, until creamy and smooth. Taste and season with salt, pepper and more nutritional yeast if needed.
  5. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Pour the tomato sauce at the bottom of a large baking dish, reserving 1 cup.
  6. Scoop a small amount of the potato ricotta, about 1/4 cup, towards the end of each eggplant slice, then roll up. Place the eggplant roll, seamside down, in the baking dish. Repeat with remaining eggplant slices. Pour the reserved tomato sauce over the top. Place in the oven and bake 20-30 minutes until warm and bubbly.