This is going to be one doozy of a post with three reviews in one! Now, I know I usually only review Pinterest recipes but I went a little rogue this week and only one out of the three is from Pinterest. Trust me it is still worth the read because the end result was amazing!
Let’s start from the beginning as to how the idea for this meal came to be. I love the talk show “The Chew.” I record it every day and watch it when I get home from work. Recently, they had an episode on grilling which I almost skipped over – I’m not a grilling fan. But I was bored one night while my husband was doing some work on our basement renovation and there was nothing else on so I decided to watch the episode. On this particular episode Mario Batali made grilled eggplant parm sandwiches. The idea was born.
Now, Mario’s recipe calls for provolone, tomato sauce, and a charred “Bomba” condiment. Not much of this truly appealed to me and it seemed like a lot of work. But, the sandwiches still looked amazing so I thought, if I could tweak them to our taste, I might really be on to something.
Cutting out the condiment however, was going to mean a decrease in flavor. My solution to this was to try my hand at focaccia bread! I LOVE focaccia but always assumed it was really difficult to make and was intimidated by it. I’m actually pretty intimidated by bread making in general – I feel like it is really easy to mess up – so I’ve never tried a bread at all. I had to go off Pinterest in search of a focaccia recipe. Sure, I could have found one on Pinterest but I didn’t have any pinned already so decided to go rogue. I came across this recipe and decided it seemed simple enough. As a bonus, unlike the others I found, it didn’t call for fresh herbs but instead dried which was what I had. I fired up my stand-mixer and away I went…
The dough came together pretty easily. At first, I was tempted to add some more water because it seemed VERY dry and pieces were crumbling off. However, I removed it from the stand-mixer instead and worked it by hand and that seemed to solve the problem.
I decided to top my focaccia with the parmesan as listed in the recipe but also with some extra basil, oregano, and garlic powder in place of the mozzarella. It took a little longer than the recipe lists for my focaccia to cook – about 20 minutes.
The focaccia came out pretty well – especially considering it was my first attempt! It definitely had the type of focaccia flavor I am familiar with and was looking for. The next time I do think I would maybe double the recipe to be able to make it slightly thicker. It also didn’t make twelve servings for what I used it for – my grilled eggplant sandwiches! It only made about five sandwich-sized portions which was enough for us to have some left over but is good to know for the future!
BUT before I got to the sandwiches I needed to come up with a side dish – it was Friday after all and this was already a healthy dinner for us for a Friday so we needed something to make us feel a little indulgent. I had been seeing a lot of buzz on Pinterest about grilled french fries. The pins I looked at used all different toppings wrapped up in a foil pack and grilled. Simple! I figured I could use this method to make one of my favorite french fry toppings – garlic parmesan! I thought this flavor combo would go great with the parmesan-y foccacia bread.
Unfortunately, most of the Pinterest recipes I found called for frozen fries to be used on the grill and I had fresh potatoes. SO I decided to use this recipe to make oven-baked fries first and THEN throw my toppings on and pop them on the grill.
The oven fries didn’t come out as well as I had hoped. I think maybe my baking tray was too full. I only had a single-layer of fries but they were close together. I also couldn’t find my tongs so flipping was difficult. No matter how many times I flipped the fries and rotated the tray they didn’t get evenly browned. But, since the sandwich was going to be the focus of the meal I figured I would press on and however the fries came they came.
When I took the fries out of the oven I put them in foil packets with about 1 tbsp. of light butter, 2 tbsp. of minced garlic, and 1 – 2 tbsp. of grated parmesan each. I wrapped the sides of the packets up but the top was still open so they wouldn’t steam and we put them on the warming shelf of the grill while we cooked the ingredients for the sandwiches. Once the sandwiches were almost done we moved them to the main part of the grill. I was hoping they would crisp up a bit more on the grill.
Overall, the fries were just OK. The garlic parm flavor was great but the fries were surprisingly soggy. More like a thin roasted potato than a french fry. I will still try them again as I am not sure how much of the problem was my technique and the additional grilling rather than the recipe.
However, even though the fries were sub-par the sandwiches…oh, the sandwiches…
Ok, so now let me walk you through what I did there. I already told you about the original recipe above. Again, I didn’t use this so much as a recipe as for inspiration for my own concoction. I already told you how I cut out the hoagie rolls for some homemade foccacia. For the filling of my sandwiches I decided on grilled eggplant, grilled tomatoes, ricotta and pesto.
To prep the eggplant I sliced one whole eggplant in 1/2 inch thick slices – this made enough for three sandwiches. I topped the slices with olive oil, ground pepper, and a touch of salt and let them marinate on the baking tray for about two hours. Mario says in the clip with the recipe that salting the eggplant will make them leathery – I was afraid of this so I only put a tiny bit of salt and they didn’t get leathery at all.
I also sliced up three smallish tomatoes (again, this was enough for three sandwiches) and did the same to those – olive oil, salt, and pepper.
Now it was time to take to the grill! We started with the eggplant. We put the slices toward the sides of the grill initially – not on direct heat – to start to cook them all the way through because I wanted the “pudding” texture that Mario references. After about 10 minutes we could see the eggplant slices starting to get translucent around the edges so we moved them over to direct heat. Once they got grill marks on one side (about 5 minutes) we flipped them and got grill marks on the other side.
After the first flip of the eggplant, I cut my focaccia in half to make two pieces of sandwich bread and added that to the grill to get a little char on it.
When the eggplant was finished we pulled the bread and the eggplant off the grill. I coated the bottom piece of bread with pesto. (Sidenote: I used pre-made pesto that comes in a jar in the pasta aisle. It was a super tiny jar – we used almost the whole thing. I was disappointed the grocery store didn’t have anything fresher in the deli section. I was also disappointed I couldn’t make my own pesto but finding pine nuts is so hard! However, with all the other deliciousness on the sandwich, the pre-made pesto was OK. It definitely added flavor and since it wasn’t the shining star it was OK that it wasn’t fresh.) I topped the pesto with three slices of grilled eggplant per sandwich.
Next, we added the tomatoes to the grill. These don’t take long at all – about 2 to 3 minutes per side. We flipped those once then pulled them off and topped the eggplant with three slices of tomato.
Last, I coated the top piece of my bread with a thick layer of ricotta cheese.
These came out WAY BETTER than I ever imagined they would. The flavors were so well balanced with a little acidity from the pesto and tomatoes and the warm but not melted ricotta. The eggplant also got to the perfect “pudding” texture. They were also very filling – I made two for my husband but he could only finish one.
We honestly didn’t miss the meat either and we are big meat eaters! As in, I won’t go to a restaurant and order a pasta dish without adding grilled chicken or meatballs to it but we really didn’t notice the lack of meat. My husband kept begging me not to tell anyone that he loved a vegetarian dish!
I will absolutely, 100% make these sandwiches again and I would definitely use the focaccia for them again as well. I would say I am excited about the other flavor combinations I could make but I honestly was so happy with this I’m not sure I’ll try a different one for awhile! Maybe I don’t hate the grill after all?…