Make-ahead meals and cooking for the freezer, once relegated to suburban supermoms who had it more together than the rest of us, are now trendy with the healthy-eating crowd.
Sure, we call it “meal prep” but it's pretty much the same thing: Make good food in advance, so that we can eat it sometime in the future. In the past, this was primarily to save meal-planning stress, dishwashing time, and money. Now, we are recognizing another implicit benefit: We are more likely to make healthy food choices if something tasty and nutritious is already prepared.
Cook once but eat twice has long been the battle cry of the make-ahead meal, with Italian comfort foods such as lasagna and eggplant parmesan perhaps being the poster-children of this eat-one-freeze-one movement. So I overhauled these Italian casseroles into my Eggplant and Spinach Parmesan, a healthier veggie-filled version that are actually quite easy to pull together, and freeze beautifully.
To make my healthy tweaks, I focused on an eggplant Parmesan dish, simply because I felt the pasta would be missed less. The eggplant, usually breaded and fried, was simply seasoned and roasted, and no one in my family missed the extra breadcrumbs or oil. I added in baby spinach, which contributed nutrients but also a nice layered lasagna-like element to the dish.
Without actual pasta, though, I knew I needed to keep some serious cheese. Using part-skim ricotta as the main component worked well, and I boosted the flavour with just a little bit of nutty Parmesan, and a reasonable quantity of mozzarella for melty-stretchy goodness. Luckily, marinara needs no makeover, as long as you buy or make one without extra sugar or preservatives. My version is vegetarian, but feel free to add a pound of lean browned ground turkey or beef if you want.
The recipe makes enough for eight, so a small family can freeze half for a second meal, or divide up leftovers into individual servings for DIY single-serving frozen meals. You can also double the recipe and really load up that freezer. I buy a bunch of foil baking pans at a warehouse store, because just seeing a stack of those pans in my cupboard inspires me to cook double and stock up the freezer.
EGGPLANT AND SPINACH PARMESAN
Start to finish: 1 1/2 hours
2 medium eggplants, about 1 1/2-2 pounds total
1 teaspoon granulated garlic
olive oil mister (or nonstick spray)
1 15-ounce container part-skim ricotta cheese
1 egg white
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
2 teaspoons dried Italian herb seasoning
5 cups baby spinach
1 cup shredded part-skim mozzarella cheese plus 1/4 cup additional for topping
4 cups prepared marinara sauce (no sugar added)
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
Preheat the oven to 375 F. Slice eggplant into 1/4-inch slices. Place on a large baking sheet fitted with a baking rack. Sprinkle with half the garlic and 1/4 teaspoon of the salt, and spray lightly with an olive oil mister. Bake for 10 minutes, and then flip over the slices. Season the second side with the remaining garlic, another 1/4 teaspoon of salt and spray with olive oil. Bake for an additional 10 minutes, or until slices are tender, but not falling apart, and then allow to cool enough to handle. Lower the oven temperature to 350 F.
Meanwhile, mix together in a small bowl the ricotta, egg white, Parmesan cheese, Italian herb seasoning, black pepper and remaining salt. Spray the inside of a medium-sized baking or casserole dish. Place 1/2 cup of the marinara sauce at the bottom of the pan.
Layer in order: half the eggplant, half the ricotta cheese, half the spinach, half the 1 cup of mozzarella, half the (remaining) sauce. Repeat the layers, ending with sauce. Top with remaining 1/4 cup of mozzarella cheese. Cover with oven safe lid or with foil (spray lightly with oil to avoid sticking), and bake until hot and bubbly, about 45 minutes, removing cover halfway through the baking time. Let sit at least 10 minutes before serving.
Chef's Tip: The dish will firm up as it cools, if you are trying to cut neater squares.
Nutrition information per serving: 236 calories; 99 calories from fat; 11 g fat (5 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 28 mg cholesterol; 855 mg sodium; 19 g carbohydrate; 6 g fibre; 9 g sugar; 16 g protein.
5 Facts about Parmesan
1 - Only cheese from the Parma or Reggio area in Italy can legally be called “Parmesan” cheese. The European Union declared this in 2008.
2 - Parmesan only gets better with age. Cheese is aged for different time periods in order to extract different flavors.
3 - Parmesan (Parmigiano in Italian) is also the cheese that boasts the highest number of imitations worldwide and for this reason its name is protected. But the world is full of alternative names, some of which are almost ridiculous, such as Parmigiana, Parmabon, Parmezanoand Permesansan. In the United States alone, the counterfeit Parmesan cheese market is worth over one billion Euros.
4 - 70% of Parmesan is made up of nutrients: rich in proteins, vitamins and minerals, it is the perfect food for children and those who practice sports. Some even say that it has the power to increase sexual desire.
5 - Three ingredients and no more: the full fat milk of cows from the area of production, which is then skimmed and, after a few hours, salt and rennet. It is strictly forbidden by production regulations to use any type of additive.
5 Facts about eggplant
1 - Eggplants aren’t really vegetables, they’re berries. Which isn’t that strange, considering other fruits are commonly mistaken for vegetables – like tomatoes.
2 - Eggplants and tomatoes are actually related. They both belong to the nightshade family with the famous literary poison – deadly nightshade. But don’t worry, eggplant isn’t toxic (at least not in normal amounts).
3 - The word “eggplant” that is used in North America comes from British-colonized India, where at the time, a small, white, egg-like variety of the vegetable was all the rage.
4 - The wonderful health benefits of eggplants are primarily derived from its vitamin, mineral, and nutrient content. Eggplants are a rich source of vitamin C, vitamin K, vitamin B6, thiamin, niacin, magnesium, phosphorous, copper, dietary fiber, folic acid, potassium, and manganese.
5 - A one-cup serving of eggplant contains 33 calories. Eggplant might be best known for its part in eggplant Parmesan, a fried dish that can contain several grams of unhealthy saturated fats. Eggplant on its own is a nutritious food, however, and can supply key vitamins and minerals to your diet.