Layers of Eggplant and Ricotta Reach New Heights
This recipe began with the idea that I wanted to make a lasagna, but I really didn’t want to eat the pasta. I do have a really great fresh pasta lasagna that I make in the instant pot (you can check that out here), so I wanted to try a version of it using something else. I know I could have tried one of the ‘faux’ pasta products on the market, but I haven’t had much success with any of those yet. Instead I thought I’d go the other way and use a vegetable in the place of the pasta. I did an earlier version using zucchini sheets that I sliced with my KitchenAid sheet slicer accessory (a marvel in itself, and worth it’s own post!) But I wanted to go a different direction. Enter the eggplant.
Eggplant is one of my favorite vegetables. I know it is a polarizing ingredient, but I seriously believe that people who don’t like eggplant have never had it cooked properly. I make a mean Eggplant Parmesan (similar to my Chicken Parm recipe, just swap the chicken for eggplant) so why not use that basic concept, but go for height. And who can fault me for wanting to layer delicious ricotta and mozzarella in between those lightly-breaded layers? No one, I tell you!
For this recipe I sliced up two large eggplants. I only ended up using the best slices, which probably equaled one eggplant. I fried all of it up, since I have no problem finishing it up either on it’s own, or combined into a stew or other dish (with my ‘leftovers’ I cooked up these quick and delicious Tasty Eggplant Stacks). However, you can also use just one eggplant, if you like and that will be plenty to layer. Use the smaller slices in the middle layers, and save the best slices for the top.
To bread, or not to bread
I went back and forth on whether I should bread the eggplant or not. Certainly if you are cutting back on pasta, you are probably also not eating bread products. But I was concerned that if I didn’t bread it, the whole thing would just be soft on top of soft, with no texture to make it interesting in your mouth. (I also really *love* breaded eggplant!) However, if you are avoiding bread or gluten, there are options available in the markets. So instead of just not breading, try giving the eggplant a crunch a different way. I personally haven’t tried any of them yet, so I can’t offer a suggestion. But if you have a favorite gluten-free breadcrumb option, I’d love to know about it. Feel free to ping me with info.
Let’s talk about Sauce
I am super lucky. A few weeks ago Trilo made a big batch of his all-day Monster Tomato Sauce, and I put some aside for this recipe. My usual go-to for sauce is to find one of our local small-scale artisanal brands. Again, I am lucky being in the San Francisco bay area. Our choices in this area are many! The important thing is to find a sauce that you like. Try a few. There are homestyle versions, with varying ingredients and recipes. Some work better than others depending on what you are combining it with. Eggplant loves basil, so you will never go wrong with a basic tomato basil sauce. If you are a meat-eater, a meat sauce will add another level of flavor and texture to your lasagna. Otherwise, you can go with one that’s packed with veggies. It’s fun to try it different ways.
Cheese and Filling
For the ricotta filling, I love the basic lasagna recipe of whole milk ricotta, low-moisture mozzarella, egg and spices. Don’t use fresh mozzarella for baking dishes like lasagna or parmesan, it has too much water in it, and will make your casserole watery. I prefer to use whole milk ricotta over part skim, it has better texture in my mind, especially for baking.
I like to buy cheese by the chunk and grate it as I need it. As a time saver, you can get pre-shredded cheese. By shredding my own I have a bigger selection of cheese to use. For instance, I currently have Grana Padano and Asiago cheeses in my fridge, so I have been enjoying them in my recipes in place of parmesan. Feel free to swap out ingredients as you like. Hard Italian cheeses are wonderful, and they all have their own character (like most Italians, hehe).
Springform Pan or Casserole Dish?
I have used a springform pan to make lasagna, with great success. If I was making this for a party, I would consider doing that for my Eggplant Lasagna. (It does look stunning sitting tall on a plate, showing off all of it’s layers.) But it is easier for me, since I am the only one eating this dish (Trilo has an aversion to vegetables), to use a casserole dish which I can put in the fridge with a silicone lid on it to eat as leftovers during the week. (Yay me!) The casserole dish is also better at containing juices, which means this will be saucier, and you won’t have to worry about juice draining out of the pan while it’s cooling.
Once you master the concept behind lasagna, you can change up the ingredients. I think it’s one of the most versatile (and impressive) dishes you can make. So let’s cook!
- 2 large Eggplants Italian
- Sea salt
- 2 cups Italian style bread crumbs
- 3 Eggs
- 2 Tbsp Milk
- Olive oil extra virgin
- 16 oz Ricotta whole milk
- 8 oz Mozzarella low moisture, part skim
- 1/2 cup Grana Padano cheese
- 16 oz Tomato sauce tomato-basil or meat
- 1 Tbsp Parsley fresh or dried
- Gather your ingredients and tools.
- Slice eggplant into 1/4″ thick slices lengthwise. If you are using two eggplants, select the best 8 slices to use for layering.Lay the eggplant slices on a cooling rack set over a cookie sheet. Sprinkle slices with salt and let sit for 10 minutes. With a paper towel, pat the moisture off of them. Then flip and salt the other side, let sit 10 minutes. Pat moisture off again.Note: I cook up all the eggplant slices even though I only use half for layering. The rest I save after frying to use for other recipes. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator.
- In the meantime, prepare the ricotta fillingShredding the mozzarella using a large shred. You can grate by hand or with a food processor. You will need 1 cup for the filling, and some set aside for sprinkling on the top at the end.
- Shred the Grana Padano (or other hard Italian cheese, like parmesan) using a finer grater.
- In a medium-sized mixing bowl, combine ricotta cheese, 1 egg, parsley, and the grated cheeses.
- Mix well with silicone spatula, turning it over, and scraping up from the bottom often.
Bread the Eggplant
- Set up your work space for breading: with two pie plates, the drained eggplant, and a large platter for the breaded eggplant. You want to be able to move easily from one to the other in an assembly-line style.In one pie plate put the bread crumbs. In the other whisk with a fork: 2 eggs, 2 tablespoons milk.
- One by one, take a slice of eggplant and lay it in the egg, flipping it over to coat well. Then lift the slice, let it drain for a second, and then drop it into the bread crumbs. Flip it over. We want it to be lightly breaded on all sides. Remove from the breadcrumbs and give it a shake to remove loose crumbs, and set on the platter. Continue with all slices
Fry the Eggplant
- Set up your stove area for frying: your platter of breaded eggplant on one side, and the cookie sheet and cooling rack on the other side. Place paper towels or a brown paper bag in the cookie sheet to soak up the draining oil.
- In a frying pan large enough to accommodate two slices side by side without crowding, pour about a 1/2″ of olive oil. Heat the oil until is begins to shimmer. Do not add the eggplant until the oil is hot. You can test by putting a small slice of the breaded eggplant in. It should begin to bubble furiously right away. If it doesn’t, give it another minute.Note: eggplant is a notorious oil sponge! If the oil is not hot enough, it will absorb the oil. However if the oil is hot, you will get perfectly cooked eggplant without the excess. Be patient.
- When the oil is hot, lower two eggplant slices into the hot oil. Lay the slices away from you, so you don’t get splattered by hot oil. When the edges start looking browned, carefully flip them over using your silicone tongs and a spatula. They are big, and will want to splash, so take care. Remove to drip rack when the second side is browned sightly. Do not over-brown. They will finish cooking in the lasagna.Note: Be very careful when frying, as the oil is extremely hot. Use your stovetop ventilation fans to keep from setting off smoke alarms (lesson learned the hard way, lol).
Assemble the Layers
- Set up your area for assembly. Alongside your casserole dish, you’ll want your ricotta mixture, sauce, and the drained fried eggplant slices.
- Start with a good layer of the tomato sauce.
- Layer two slices of eggplant, side-by-side. If they are very long, you can cut them to fit. I just let them fold up. You will be alternating the direction of the following rows, so those ends will help fill in along the sides.Note: if you have only sliced-up one eggplant, use the smaller slices in the middle two layers. Use large slices for the bottom, and the two best-looking slices for the top.
- On top of the eggplant put a good layer of the ricotta mixture. You will have three layers of ricotta, so you can use a third of the mixture per layer.
- Repeat with sauce, eggplant, ricotta. Sauce, eggplant, ricotta. Finishing with a layer of eggplant, sauce, and the reserved shredded mozzarella.
- Don’t be afraid to layer above the edge of the bowl. My lasagna almost always is taller than my pans! It’s a sturdy construction, so it will hold itself up, tho it may spill some sauce over the edge.
Cook the lasagna
- Cover loosely with foil. I like to make a pouf, like a shower cap over the top of the dish. You don’t want the foil to touch the cheese on top or it will stick.Put the casserole dish on the trivet with handles. Put a cup of water in the Instant Pot, and lower the trivet into the pot.
- Close the vent on the Instant Pot, and cook manual on high for 20 minutes. Then do a natural pressure release until the pin drops.
- Remove the trivet and casserole dish, remove foil. Leave to cool for 20 minutes to set.
- Note: you can eat it sooner, if you are impatient. The layers will slide, but it will still be delish!
- Slice the lasagna and lift it out of the casserole dish with a spoon or spatula. Marvel at the layers!You can cover the casserole dish and store the leftover in the fridge. Slices can be reheated in the microwave. Enjoy!