Eggplant Jardinière Sandwich

garden sandwich

It's the summer of eggplant. Those funny shaped orbs of purple are one of my favorite vegetables. I especially love the unusual varieties. This summer, as every year, I have been growing lots of eggplants, but not the typical globe variety. This summer was all about Asian eggplants. I grew the Japanese variety, Ichiban, from plants that produce near-ebony purple eggplants and also the Taiwanese Pingtung variety, which is bright purple in color. Both varieties have almost no seeds and are less bitter than typical eggplants. They work exceptionally well in stir-frys or when grilled.

Grilling eggplant is one of the best and healthiest ways to prepare the purple vegetable. Eggplants are a lot like sponges and tend to absorb lots of oil when fried for a dish like eggplant parmigiana. Grilling them reduces the amount of oil absorbed drastically, especially when all you do is rub the slices with a little oil. If you are grilling outdoors, slicing the vegetable lengthwise is best so as to not lose any small round pieces between the grates. The grilled eggplant can be used to make this summery sandwich.

Asian eggplants

This garden sandwich is loosely based on one I once enjoyed at Bouchon Bakery in New York. Unfortunately it is no longer sold. My version not only uses grilled eggplant but zucchini and red bell pepper as well. The grilled vegetables get sandwiched between country bread slathered with pesto and layered with fontina cheese. The sandwich is then pressed like panini until the bread is toasted and the cheese melted. Either a panini press or a grill pan with a weight are ideal, but I use a grill pan and bricks wrapped in foil to act as my weight. The finished sandwich makes a great lunch and even though it's vegetarian, meat-eaters will like it too. Eggplant is just that likeable.

Eggplant Jardinière Sandwich

2 long Asian eggplants
2 zucchini
1 large red bell pepper
olive oil
fine sea salt
freshly ground black pepper
4 large or 6 small slices of bread, preferably French batard or boule
basil pesto, recipe follows
6 slices fontina or mozzarella cheese

Cut off tops and bottoms from eggplants and zucchini; slice into 1/4-inch thick planks. Eggplant slices can be salted to remove excess moisture, if desired. Let sit for 5 minutes before washing and patting dry. Core bell pepper and cut into 1/2-inch strips.

Heat a grill pan at medium to medium-high heat. Drizzle vegetables with just enough oil to coat. Add vegetables, grilling in batches, until slices are limp and marked with grill lines, about 2 to 3 minutes per side. Skins from peppers can be removed at this point, if desired. Remove vegetables to a platter and season with salt and pepper.

Spread one side of each slice of bread with a spoonful of pesto. Top with slices of cheese. Arrange eggplant, zucchini, and bell peppers over top. Press halves together. Brush grill grates with oil. Add sandwiches and grill one side until marked with lines. Carefully flip over, and weight sandwiches with a panini presser or bricks wrapped in foil. Grill until cheese has melted. Remove sandwiches to a board and cut into halves. Serve immediately. Yield: 2 hearty or 3 smaller sandwiches.

Basil Pesto

3 cups basil leaves
2 garlic cloves
1/4 cup pine nuts, toasted in a dry pan and allowed to cool
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1/3 to 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
fine sea salt
freshly ground black pepper

Combine basil, garlic, pine nuts, and Parmesan in the bowl of a food processor with a little oil. Pulse until finely chopped. Drizzle in olive oil and process until a paste forms. Check seasoning. Yield: 1-1/2 cups.