By the way, my brother, who is still here for several days, actually rode his Harley from Virginia to Texas, something I neglected to mention in my list of superlatives about him and his cooking the other night. He has also managed to repair several things I didn't even know were in need of repair. Is this guy a Renaissance Man or what? Sorry ladies, he's taken. But this should be encouraging to you: there are still nice men out there that your mother would approve of. Those nice men will also climb up on your roof and clean out your gutters. Those nice men will also sit at your dinner table and eat your prissily elegant food without so much as a wimper. And they will ask for seconds.
Thursday's weather was beyond sublime, perfect picnic weather. Cloudless, piercingly bright and a luscious temperature of 78 degrees. During our evening meal, we dined al fresco on a beautiful rustic table (one of the projects my brother completed for me), shared a bottle of Petronius Chianti Classico 2007 (Italy), and plates of eggplant and zucchini involtini with a simple mixed salad on the side. The Petronius has lots of fruit with a medium range of tannins and good structure to complement the marinara that formed the base for the involtini. I also think that a lighter red, like a soft, not-too-assertive zinfandel or a rounder, richer pinot noir would have been good accompaniment.
The involtini are relatively simple and I've used some shortcuts which don't compromise quality, but this dish does involve a longer process than you might think, so I've written out the recipe to indicate where you could make them ahead and then finish the final steps when you're ready to cook and serve them. They are fabulously light and flavorful, and impressively beautiful on the plate in their pool of marinara sauce. I garnished them with fresh basil leaves and they made a very elegant supper indeed. I hope you enjoy them as much as we did.
Involtini a la rustica
1 large zucchini
2 medium eggplant
freshly ground pepper
32 oz. ricotta cheese
1/2 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese (reserve 2 Tbs. for finishing)
2 eggs, beaten
1/4 cup chopped arugula, spinach or parsley (or a combination)
1/2 tsp. ground nutmeg
1/4 tsp. onion powder
1/4 tsp. garlic powder
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1 1/2 cups panko (reserve 2 Tbs. for finishing)
1 Tbs. finely minced parsley (or 1 tsp. dried)
3 cups good-quality marinara sauce (or make your own)
extra virgin olive oil for drizzling
basil leaves for garnish
1. Wash and trim the stem-ends of the eggplant and the zucchini.
2. Cut both vegetables lengthwise into long slabs about 1/4 wide. Don't worry if your cuts are imperfect; you can piece slices together later.
3. Brush both sides of the vegetable slices generously with olive oil and place on baking sheets. Season generously with salt and pepper.
4. Roast in oven at 375 degrees until softened and slightly caramelized, about 20 minutes. Do not let the slices get crispy--they must stay pliable.
5. Set aside vegetable slices to cool while you prepare the filling: combine ricotta, parmesan (less 2 Tbs.), eggs, nutmeg, onion powder and garlic powder.
6. Mix well and then season to taste with salt and freshly ground pepper.
7. Lay a cooled vegetable slice vertically on a flat surface. Put about 2 Tbs. filling at the widest end and roll vegetable slice up around the filling, placing seam-side down in a well-oiled baking dish. Continue with remaining vegetable slices, piecing together as necessary.
You can prepare this dish ahead to this point, then cover and chill the involtini until you are ready to finish and serve them. Prepare up to 24 hours ahead if you'd like.
8. Measure the panko into a shallow dish, setting aside 2 Tbs. for finishing.
9. Roll each involtini in the panko and replace in baking dish.
10. Combine reserved parmesan, reserved panko, and minced parsley. Season well with salt and freshly ground pepper.
11. Sprinkle panko/parmesan mixture over involtini.
12. Bake uncovered at 375 degrees for about 25 minutes, or until tops of involtini are lightly golden and crisped.
13. Meanwhile, gently heat marinara sauce.
14. To serve: place a pool of warm marinara on a plate or shallow dish. Arrange involtini on top of the marinara. Drizzle with olive oil and garnish with basil leaves. Serves 6.