Cheese Free Italian? Really?

We have a weakness for Mediterranean foods in my home, and the Americanized versions used to feature heavily in our mealtime rotations.  Pasta, pasta, pasta with tomato sauce, pesto, mushrooms, whatever and plenty of CHEESE please.  And so it was with great curiosity, and more than a little skepticism that I regarded the Raw Zucchini Manicotti on the menu of a fabulous vegetarian restaurant in Asheville.

Vegan and raw manicotti?  Hunh?  It didn’t even make sense to me, but on the recommendation of the diners making fairly obscenely joyful eating noises at the table next door we ordered this odd dish, and (choirs of angels singing here) holy moly it was great.  I described this dish, and the super scene in Asheville at the time and swore to myself, ahem and to you, ahem….. that I would replicate it one day.  That day has come, a mere 7 months later…

Faced with a fridge of zucchini on the edge of spoiling, eggplant that had been sitting far too long, a fresh batch of sunflower cheese, and my friend Somer’s moxerella cheese, I knew it was now or never, well at least not for several more months.  Two Italian dishes without pasta or cheese, coming up.

I started with a dish I’d been thinking about for a while, Eggplant Rollatini.  I turned to my friend Deborah Madison for guidance on this one as I don’t have a lot of eggplant or rollatini experience.  Her version calls for 2 large globe eggplants and about 2 cups of filling – she has several versions of what to fill it with.  I had one medium regular dark purple eggplant (that color STILL gets me) so I decided to follow her quantity advice for filling and use it for both the eggplant and the zucchini dishes.

Dairy Free Eggplant Rollatini

  • 1 medium sized eggplant
  • 1 c cheese type (or cheeze type in this case) filling
  • herbed olive oil for drizzle
  • fresh tomatoes (or leftover tomato sauce) for condiment

I followed Deborah Madison’s basic rollatini procedure.  Cut the eggplant into slices 1/3 inch or less (or they’ll be unrollable).  Sprinkle slices with salt and let stand (to remove some moisture).  Rinse the slices and blot dry. Brown in a warm pan with oil (you could do this a variety of ways).  Don’t worry if they look dry.  Remove from heat.  When cool enough to manage, plop about 2 Tbs of filling in the center and roll it up – secure with toothpick if necessary.  Because my eggplant was not very large, rolling became tucking.  Perhaps I should call mine Eggplant Tuckatini…  These can be stored in a baking dish, in a single layer covered with foil until you are ready to eat (i.e. great make-ahead dish).  When ready, preheat oven to 400 and bake until warm through 20-25 minutes.  Serve with herbed olive oil and tomatoes (or sauce).

Vegan Raw Zucchini Womanicotti (hehe)

  • 2 medium sized zuchhini
  • 1 c filling as above
  • herbed olive oil as above
  • fresh tomatoes as above

This dish has the biggest flavor bang for the effort of any I have every made.  No lie.  It was sublime.  My husband made obscene noises while eating – while that may not appeal to you, it was intended as an indication of high approval.  To prepare the zucchini I used a mandoline (I know AAAGGH you’ll cut your finger off).  I VERY CAREFULLY used a mandoline.  I suppose you could do it by hand, but that would require far greater knife skills than I possess and I am quite sure I would truly cut my finger off then.  At any rate, you want the zucchini cut lengthwise in a thickness that you could conceivably roll.  Lightly salt the zucchini and let it set a while so some of the water comes out – will help with the rolling.  Blot zucchini dry.  Plop an amount that looks sensible in the middle of the roll and wrap the sides around it.  Honestly, I’m not super aesthetically gifted in food prep, so I imagine you could find a way to do this that would create a prettier product, but I was late, we were hungry and the kids were losing it, so there you are.  Drizzle with oil and tomatoes.  Eat and revel in simple amazing yum.

Cheeze Filling

Put in food processor.  Blitz.  Done.  I was tempted to add herbs, and next time I might, but I thought the olive oil would be a safer way to add more flavor while preventing child rebellion due to “little green things in the cheese part.”  It would be yummy with some basil, rosemary or thyme, but it was fabulous just like this.

Herbed Olive Oil

  • 1/2 c olive oil
  • small handful basil

I put these into a blender and made lovely green herby oil, but there’s no reason you couldn’t chop the basil and add it to the oil by hand.

The family verdict?  The eggplant detractors were not convinced, but I enjoyed it.  EVERYONE ate the zucchini.  The adults watched in horror as the children had seconds, limiting our potential scarfing.  Amazing.  I will make MUCH more next time.  I will also be thinking about how to make it appetizer sized.  Delish and for us a delightful reminder of a glorious spring day in the mountains.