Why do vegetable sandwiches always taste better in theory than in practice? What I want is a vibrant and satisfying sandwich, complete with contrasting textures and varying flavors; what I usually get is a soggy mess of haphazardly cooked vegetables that are limp and under-seasoned. Perhaps if I cut back on the number of options and focused on cooking them properly I could correct this problem and make my theoretical ideal come to life? That was the plan, anyway.
I decided to focus on only two vegetables, eggplant and broccoli rabe, but quickly realized I'd have to cook each differently. I sliced the eggplant into 1/4-inch thick sheets, brushed them with oil, and seasoned them all with salt and pepper. Instead of using them right away, I set the slices aside for 30 minutes, which helped to remove excess water and any excess bitterness (the broccoli rabe would certainly have enough of that). Then I cooked them on a grill pan until tender and smoky.
I considered grilling the broccoli rabe, too, but worried that the leaves would finish cooking way before the stalks. Plus, I wanted to lessen the bitter bite. What I settled on was a quick sauté with garlic and red pepper flakes, and then a braise to finish the stalks off. Chicken stock added some richness, though you could use vegetable stock to accomplish the same goal.
The eggplant pieces are tender and meaty, with a distinct profile of smoke, while the broccoli rabe is crunchy, only slightly bitter, with a hint of heat. Some fresh mozzerella slices add creaminess, and a final drizzle of olive oil ties everything together with the ciabatta bread.
- Yield:serves 4
- Active time: 20 minutes
- Total time:45 minutes
- 2 Italian eggplants, ends trimmed, sliced 1/4-inch thick lengthwise
- 5 tablespoons olive oil, divided
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 2 medium garlic cloves, thinly sliced
- 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
- 1 bunch broccoli rabe, hard ends trimmed, cut into 2-inch pieces
- 1/2 cup homemade or store-bought low-sodium chicken or vegetable broth
- 4 ciabatta-style rolls, halved horizontally
- 1 (1 pound) ball fresh mozzarella, sliced into 1/4-inch disks
- fresh basil leaves, chopped
Brush eggplant slices on both sides with one tablespoon of oil and season with salt and pepper. Arrange on a large plate or baking sheet and set aside.
Heat two tablespoons of olive oil in a heavy-bottomed 12-inch skillet over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add garlic and cook, stirring, until beginning to color, about 30 seconds. Add red pepper flakes and broccoli rabe and cook, stirring often, until stems are bright green, about two minutes. Add stock and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low and cover. Cook, stirring occasionally, until broccoli is tender, about eight minutes. Remove cover and cook until any remaining liquid evaporates. Season with salt and pepper. Transfer to a large plate and allow to cool.
Heat a grill, grill pan, or broiler to medium. Cook eggplant slices, flipping occasionally, until lightly browned on both sides and completely tender, 6 to 10 minutes total. Set aside.
Brush cut side of each ciabatta roll with remaining olive oil. Grill until lightly browned, about 30 seconds. Set bread aside.
Top each bottom slice with grilled eggplant, broccoli rabe, fresh mozzarella, and some chopped basil. Drizzle with a little olive oil, and then cap with top piece of bread. Press to close, and serve.