For my ahem, 40th birthday (yes, I'm dating myself!) my family sent Richie and I on a romantic trip of a lifetime to the Amalfi coast in Italy. The entire trip was spectacular and we spent our days climbing Mt. Vesuvius and visiting the ruins of Pompeii, exploring tiny little Italian villages, taking a ferry to the Isle of Capri and of course, eating, which is something the Italians know how to do incredibly well. Every meal we had, even the simplest ones, were memorable and my husband fell in love with the Caprese salad, which I think we ate at least once a day, sometimes more. These "towers" are sort of a like a stackable Caprese salad and bring me back to warm, sunny, carefree romantic days and while they look intimidating to make, they're actually nothing more than grilled vegetables and cheese stacked atop a spicy homemade tomato sauce--simple, yet eye-catching and sophisticated, which is the classic Italian way, no?
You could totally serve this a simple salad, you know, just layering the slices of eggplant, tomato and mozzarella, but where's the fun in that?! C'mon, break free and explore your artistic side--this is Italian art we're talking about here!! Besides, can you imagine people's faces when you bring these masterpieces out--they'll feel like they're eating in some trendy little place but no, you can assure them it came right out of your humble little kitchen. Here's how...
First you make the spicy tomato sauce which is nothing more than canned chopped tomatoes that cook down with some onion, garlic, red wine and balsamic vinegar. Meanwhile you grill the tomatoes and eggplant and roast the red pepper.
Now it's just a matter of stacking--think of it as edible block building!
What a feat! You'll feel such a sense of accomplishment! Seems a shame to demolish and eat but the combination of spicy tomato sauce, slightly charred eggplant, tomato and red pepper, made mellow by the creaminess of fresh mozzarella and parmesan along with with the light peppery crispness of fresh basil is irresistible and worth every bite! The perfect meatless dinner or appetizer! These flavor combinations just scream summer so make this as soon as you get the chance while eggplants and tomatoes are in season and if even you can't swing an Italian vacation, treat your tastebuds at least, to a little bit of Italy. Ciao!
Grilled Eggplant, Tomato & Mozzarella Towers
Makes 6 servings
Prep Time: 1 hour (including sauce)
For the Spicy Tomato Sauce
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 red onion, diced
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
- 1/2 cup dry red wine
- One 28 ounce can chopped tomatoes with juice
- Salt and pepper to taste
For the Towers
- 4 large beefsteak tomatoes, cored and cut into 1/2 thick rounds (if you cut these too thin, they'll fall apart when you grill them)
- 2 large eggplants, cut into 1/2 thick rounds
- 1/2 cup olive oil, plus extra to brush grill racks with
- 2 garlic gloves, minced
- 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
- 3 tablespoons basil leaves, cut into thin strips, divided
- 1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
- 1/2 pound fresh mozzarella, sliced into 1/4 thick slices
- 1/2 cup thinly sliced roasted red bell peppers (you can buy them in a jar if you don't want to make them yourself)
- Salt and pepper to taste
1. To make the Spicy Tomato Sauce: Heat the olive oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion and cook until softened, about 3 minutes, stirring every now and then. Then add the garlic and cook, stirring constantly, for 2 minutes.
2. Add in the vinegar and wine and turn the heat to high and simmer rapidly for 3-4 minutes, stirring occasionally, until half of the liquid boils away. Add the tomatoes with their juice, turn the heat to low and keep at a low simmer for about 20 minutes, stirring every so often, until sauce has thickened. Remove from the heat and season to taste with salt and pepper. Set aside till ready to use. Sauce can be made one day ahead and refrigerated in an airtight container until ready to serve.
3. To make the Towers: Preheat the barbecue and brush the grill racks with olive oil. Heat should be on high.
4. In a small bowl, whisk together the olive oil, garlic, vinegar and 1 tablespoon of the basil. Lay the eggplant and tomatoes out on large rimmed trays and brush both sides with the olive oil mixture. Grill the tomatoes for 1-2 minutes per side--too long and they'll start to fall apart. Remove from the grill and transfer to a platter. Grill the eggplant for about 5 minutes per side, until tender and browned with nice grill marks.
5. Roast the red pepper over a gas flame, using a pair of tongs to hold the pepper over a high flame, rotating the pepper so that all the sides get charred and blackened. Then place in a paper bag, fold it up tightly and let cool. Remove the skin, stem, core and seeds. OR roast in the oven. Rub pepper with olive oil. place on a baking sheet and roast in a 450ºF oven for about 20 minutes. Turn the pepper twice during baking so that all sides get charred. Remove from the oven and when cool, take off the skin, stem, core and seeds.
6. On small plates, place enough tomato sauce to cover the bottom of the dish. Starting with the largest slices of eggplant you have, place them on top of the tomato sauce. Layer on the largest slices of tomato. Sprinkle with some of the Parmesan cheese, top with a slice of mozzarella, another slice of tomato, another slice of eggplant, some roasted peppers, another slice of mozzarella, another slice of tomato and a bit more tomato sauce. As you go up, try to use the smaller pieces to help balance things out. At the very top, garnish it all with a bit of red pepper, some small pieces of mozzarella and the remaining basil. There's really no rule--just build as you like. Serve immediately or as soon as possible--these are best if eaten soon after they're made.
7. Save any leftover veggies and tomato sauce in airtight containers in the fridge.
Note: Recipe adapted from The Foster's Market Cookbook by Sara Foster.