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Involtini di Melanzane

So here we are, talking in foreign languages again ... what's "involtini," anyway?

Not so much a specific food as a method of preparation, "involtini" translates loosely from the Italian as "rolled-up things." Meat, fish or a vegetable, sliced thin (and sometimes pounded even more thin) is rolled around a compatible filling and cooked, yielding a dish that's packed with flavor, as good to look at as to eat whether you attack it whole with a knife and fork or slice it into rounds for presentation on the plate.

You'll sometimes see it billed as "rollatini" or "rolatini," although I have the impression that this word is more common in Italian-American eateries than in the old country or more authentic Italian restaurants.

We enjoyed a delicious version made with eggplant ("Melanzana") as an appetizer at a new local Italian restaurant the other day, and it inspired me to try something similar at home as a vegetarian main dish, significantly de-fatted by steaming the eggplant slices rather than frying them. (Many recipes actually call for breading and frying the eggplant slices, a technique that, as much as it may call out to my inner Southern boy, produces a dish that's significantly less, um, refined.)

Although the procedure requires several steps - prepare the eggplant, make an easy tomato sauce, fashion a quick cheese filling, assemble and bake - it's easier than it looks, and shouldn't take much more than an hour to build.

INGREDIENTS: (Serves two)

1 large eggplant
1 small or 1/2 medium white or yellow onion
2 cloves garlic
1 large fresh tomato or half of a 14.5-ounce (411g) can of tomatoes
1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds
1 tablespoon tomato paste
2 tablespoons olive oil
4 ounces ricotta cheese
1 ounce grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese
1 egg
2 tablespoons chopped Italian flatleaf parsley
Black pepper
Dried red-pepper flakes


1. Prepare the eggplant: Cut off the end and slice the eggplant lengthwise into about six even slices no more than 1/2 inch (1 1/4 cm) thick. Sprinkle them with salt, and put them into a steamer basket over simmering water for about 10 minutes or until they are soft. Gently remove them to a large plate or counter top and let them cool. (Cutting the slices thinner makes for prettier involtini but also makes them fragile and difficult to handle. I didn't bother.)

2. Make the tomato sauce: Peel the onion and chop it coarsely; peel the garlic and mince it fine. Chop the parsley. If you're using fresh tomatoes, peel, seed and chop them; if using whole canned tomatoes, cut them into chunks. Sautee the onion and garlic gently in 1 tablespoon of the olive oil in a sautee pan or small saucepan until they are translucent, then put in the tomatoes, tomato paste and a small amount of dried red-pepper flakes to taste. Add the fennel seeds - I like to break them up in a mortar and pestle first to help release their flavor - and about half of the chopped parsley, reserving the rest. Simmer uncovered over very low heat for 15 minutes or so, stirring occasionally and adding a little water if it seems to be too thick. Check for seasoning and add salt and black pepper to taste.

3. Fashion the filling: Put the ricotta in a small bowl. Stir in the egg, Parmigiano and reserved chopped parsley. You want the result to be thick, not runny, so add the egg a little at a time and don't use it all (or add a little more ricotta) if needed to get the texture right.

4. Preheat the oven to 350F (175C).

5. Assemble the involtini: Lightly grease a small baking dish with a little olive oil. Put about 1 heaping tablespoon of cheese filling on the center of each steamed eggplant slice, and gently roll it into a cylinder with the filling inside. Place seam-side-down in the baking pan. When you've got them all lined up, drizzle the remaining tablespoon of olive oil over the tops (skip this step if you're really counting calories), then pour the tomato sauce over them. I had a little filling left over, so I used it to dot the top of the sauce. Put it in the oven and bake for about 20 minutes, until the sauce is hot and bubbly and browning on top.

MATCHING WINE: This wine-friendly dish would go well with just about any fruity but dry and tart red wine - a Chianti or other traditional Italian red would be perfect. It occured to me, though, that Pinot Noir - Burgundy in particular - would marry well with the earthy flavor of eggplant and herb-laced tomato sauce, and the generic but appealing Domaine Chêne 2000 Bourgogne Rouge hit the spot.

Want a copy that's easy to use in the kitchen? You'll find a simple, plain-text version of these recipes, suitable for printing, online at

If you have questions, comments or ideas to share about this recipe or food and cookery in general, you're welcome to drop by our Food Lovers' Discussion Group, where I've posted this article as a new topic, "FoodLetter: Involtini di Melanzane."

Click the REPLY button on the forum page to post a comment or response. (If your E-mail software broke this long link in half, take care to paste it all back into one line before you enter it in your Web browser.)

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Thursday, Sept. 2, 2004
Copyright 2004 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved.

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