Eggplant Parmesan Stacks & Other Vegetarian Challenge Favorites

By Charleen - February 28, 2021

Today is Vegetaruary Day 28, the last day of a Vegetarian February Challenge issued by our daughter. And we celebrated with a light lunch of muffin tin eggplant parmesan stacks. It has been a fun adventure trying out new recipes and revisiting old favorites. Early on, we relied more heavily on cheese, but as our cooking vista expanded, we found ourselves eating vegan dishes more and more frequently. Among the new discoveries are a super easy, super fast browned butter radish couscous, tofu sofritas tacos, and a hearty two-bean loaf with homemade tomato jam. We also enjoyed standbys such as silken tofu spinach soup with Sichuan chili crisp (instead of prosciutto bits), vegetarian spring rolls, vegetarian chili and a spiced lentil curry topped with yogurt. Although the challenge is over, I suspect we will be eating similarly on most days going forward. There are so many more recipes we want to try!

Eggplant Parmesan Stacks

Last year, we tried a 15 day vegetarian challenge, and were foiled by work dinners and (not so) hidden ingredients in oyster sauce. But as the pandemic shutdown progressed, with more time in the kitchen and no traveling, we discovered some incredible vegetarian dishes from the likes of Gordon Ramsay, Yotam Ottolenghi, Grace Young and Melissa Clark.

So when 2021 came along, my daughter decided to double the challenge by selecting the entire month of February, the shortest month of the year. We were much better prepared this time! A side benefit is that after only two weeks of vegetarian eating, my cholesterol and LDL levels normalized and my doctor called to say that I did not need to start statins after all. Plus, I easily dropped the weight I had been trying to lose for the past 3-4 years, without even noticing. More importantly, we enjoyed a variety of delicious meals, expanding our cooking repertoire. Listed below are about a dozen of our favorites!

Eggplant Parmesan Stacks

This is my second time making individual Eggplant Parmesan entrees from the Muffin Tin Chef cookbook by Matt Kadey. His technique of oven baking the breaded parmesan slices results in a completely non-greasy dish where the sauce, cheese and eggplant melds into rich, satisfying stacks. I also like the addition of broccoli rabe (although I used regular broccoli). Best of all, as with many of my Asian eggplant recipes, there is no time-consuming and messy salting of the eggplant slices required. 

🐾 Next time, I might skip the muffin tin, and try arranging the eggplant slices as little stacks in a 9 x 13 inch pan.  Jump to the recipe for Eggplant Parmesan Stacks.  

Spiced Braised Lentils, a Food52 Genius Recipe (vegan-friendly)

This Melissa Clark recipe infuses lentils with all the flavor of a good Madras curry powder, with tantalizing toppings of crunchy mustard seeds on creamy white yogurt. The satisfying bites of rich lentils play well against the contrast of textures in the toppings. Not having unsweetened coconut flakes, I substituted toasted bread crumbs the first time I made this, and then tried smoky wok-crisped mushrooms the second time. 

Try using lentils of different colors.  Here I have a combination of brown and red lentils with some split peas. It's also a great recipe to use up zucchini squash and other vegetables. 

For vegans, simply omit or substitute soy yogurt for the topping. It is truly deserving of a place in the Genius Recipes category.

Hot and Sour Soup (vegan-friendly)

We love this warm and cozy soup, which uses pantry staples to create a rich and hearty sensory experience. In another post, I covered my odyssey of trying multiple recipes for hot and sour soup to arrive at the perfect texture and flavor. In the process, we decided that we liked the soup better vegetarian as the pork slivers could end up tough and did not add much in the way of flavor. The best part of this recipe is that it relies heavily on dried mushrooms and long-storing pantry staples such as eggs and tofu.  

For vegans, omit the egg -- which adds pretty yellow streaks but is not necessary. The luscious flavor comes primarily from the vinegar and white pepper, and the tofu and mushrooms offer plenty of protein. 

Bean Loaves with Tomato Jam (vegan)

This was another recipe from The Muffin Tin Chef cookbook. The homemade tomato jam made from red Roma tomatoes was fabulous (next time double or even triple the jam)!  The mixture of garbanzo beans (chickpeas), pinto beans, pecans (I did not have sunflower seeds) and the seasonings yielded a very meaty aroma and appearance. My husband thought I was making beef stew when he walked in the door!

I did not have a whole onion, so the mixture ended up on the dry side. I tried to compensate by adding half a red bell pepper, but in retrospect I should have mixed in some oil, broth or even egg to help bind it together. Nevertheless, this is definitely a keeper and may even form the basis of a new veggie burger!

Vegetable Spring Rolls and Celebration Rice Cake (vegan)

When my daughter picked February for the challenge month, it seemed reasonable given that it is the shortest month. What I did not realize, however, was that the lunar New Year and Lantern Festivals both fell in February. Grace Young and Yotam Ottolenghi to the rescue!

Grace has a wonderful vegetable spring roll recipe in The Breath of a Wok, as well as a delicious char siu (Chinese bbq pork version) in Wisdom of a Chinese Kitchen. Back in 2020, I had made both of these, even making my own spring roll wrappers out of flour and water as I was trying to minimize trips to the store. Click here to read about how easy it is to make spring rolls, whether you prefer yours to be deep-fried, air-fried or even non-fried!

And I had previously modified Yotam Ottolenghi's savory vegan celebration rice cake to include dried Chinese mushrooms and other "treasures" available to me in a nod to the Eight-treasure sweet sticky rice cakes traditionally served for the Spring Festival. So I pulled out my Instant Pot Bundt Cake pan and made another wreath-like sticky rice cake with a rich, enticing mushroom gravy moat. 
Savory Sticky Rice Celebration Bundt Cake

🐾 My tip for this dish is to soak the glutinous rice for at least 8 h as I did the first time I made this, as some of the rice on top did not get as soft and sticky as I would have liked in this version.

Silken Tofu and Spinach Soup (vegan)

This is one of my all time favorite tofu dishes. Indeed, the luscious soup base with tiny white cubes of tofu set off against emerald green spinach and garnished with a sprinkle of prosciutto is one of my suggested entry dishes for people that believe they could never like tofu.  The original soup recipe from Fuchsia Dunlop's Land of Fish and Rice had pork in it, but I had modified it to our tastes.  Click here for the recipe. 
Silken tofu with spinach soup - vegan version garnished with Sichuan Chili Crisp

Hot and sour soup with cubes of clean-out-the-fridge zucchini.
To make this into a vegan dish, I substituted vegetable broth for chicken broth and omitted the crispy bits of proscuitto that I used as a garnish. While tasty, it was lacking a bit of umami oomph. The solution was this amazing vegan condiment called Sichuan Chili Crisp by FlybyJing, featuring lots of fantastic ingredients including fermented black beans, red chilis, garlic, sesame oil and Sichuan peppers. A drizzle of Sichuan Chili Crisp raised this fantastic soup to the sublime level. 

Brown Butter Couscous with Spring Vegetables

This recipe by "EmilyC" on the Food52 site is a true winner!  As I put in my review, "Fantastic, quick and easy! This is a great weekday meal with wonderful flavors, colors and textures. Will definitely be used a lot. I kept the radish greens and added them with the spinach. It all disappeared with no leftovers."  

The spinach is washed, with the radish greens added in. Cutting wedges of radish to be browned in butter and thin slices to be added raw.

Looking back on my photos, the entire dish only took about 18 minutes to make, including browning the butter in the saucepan for the couscous, bringing it to a boil, washing and cutting the vegetables, browning the radish and tossing it all together in the wok, and plating.

After browning the radish wedges in butter and lemony sumac, the greens are quickly wilted before adding the toasted almonds, dried date pieces and the couscous prepared in brown butter.

Tofu Sofritas and Refried Bean Tacos/Tostadas (vegan friendly)

An old standby for a quick dinner dating back to my 20s, I have always loved bean tostadas. Over the years, however, the tostada shells (flat version of taco shells) have disappeared off our store shelves to be replaced by these weird tortilla bowls. The solution is to buy corn tortillas (the best ones have only two ingredients: masa or whole grain corn with a trace of lime and water), and crisp them up in a hot pan. 
Bean tostadas with butter lettuce, red onion, avocado, salsa and cheddar-jack blend

After browning the first side and flipping, I sprinkle on shredded cheddar or a Mexican cheese blend to melt while the other side crisps. Then it's just a matter of adding warmed vegetarian refried beans, shredded lettuce, chopped tomatoes, salsa, scallions, Cholula hot sauce, or whatever else you like!
Make your own soft taco with warmed corn tortillas, tofu sofritas, avocado, red onion, butter lettuce, refried beans, dry wok-braised spinach and English cucumber spears, Cholula sauce, shredded cheese and jarred salsa.

A few days later, I tried this fantastic recipe for Sofritas Tofu from the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. I added some chipotle powder to boost the heat and smokiness. While it did not look too appetizing, it was amazing wrapped in a taco. It was so good, that I did not need to add any cheese, enjoying it as a vegan dish. 
Pan-fried tofu sofritas taco

Charred Cauliflower Steaks with Mushroom-Caper Berry Pistou

Just like the Celebration Bundt Cake, this beautiful dish is a true show stopper. I have made this Gordon Ramsay Masterclass inspired dish countless times. It is tasty, beautiful and relatively adaptable. Perhaps the prettiest version was last spring, when I had fresh chive blossoms for the garnish. But my winter version featuring caper berries, sumac and cauliflower leaves was just as satisfying.  Click here for the recipe and photos showcasing the adaptability of this striking dish.

Chili and Beans Galore (vegan-friendly)

Of course there are many delicious vegetarian chili recipes using all sorts of beans. Early in the challenge we made a pumpkin chili modified from the Kitchn blog. As I did not have pumpkin, I used butternut squash, which I had roasted in the toaster oven the day before with extra virgin olive oil and a touch of this amazing smoky seasoned sea salt called Campfire by Suzi Sheffield and sold by Uncommon Goods. The squash was so delicious, I did not think it would survive to be included in the chili. The Kitchn recipe features pinto beans, tomatoes, bell pepper and turnips, in addition to the orange winter squash. It is absolutely delicious with a slight sweet, cinnamon taste.

A bit later, we also made the Vegetarian Chili from Jane Butel's Chili Madness cookbook, which we have made for years. This is a more traditionally flavored chili, which is so hearty that no one notices it is vegetarian. Indeed, I just realized this chili is also vegan, aside from the optional cheese or sour cream toppings. 

In a future post, I plan to compile all of my favorite chili recipes.  And there are some other fantastic warm bean salads and white bean purees that we have been enjoying during the pandemic, but did not have time to make in this short one month vegetarian challenge. Check back for updates!

Eggplant Parmesan Stacks 

Inspired by the fun recipes in The Muffin Tin Chef, I have modified the procedure to allow for prepping the eggplant slices in advance, as that is the most time consuming part. I also modified the sauce to take advantage of the full can of fire-roasted tomatoes, as I find that several of his recipes could use some extra sauce. 

Serves 3-6 (See Note)

1 lb purple eggplant (2 x 1/2 pound is ideal, but here I used a 1 pound eggplant, trimming to fit)
1 large egg
1 Tbs water
1 cup panko bread crumbs
1 tsp dried oregano
2 oz (w) Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, divided

1 14.5-oz (w) can of diced fire roasted tomatoes (See Note)
1-1.5 tsp Penzey's Italian Herb Mix (oregano, basil, marjoram, thyme and rosemary)
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 Tbs red wine vinegar
1/4 tsp red pepper flakes
1/4 cup fresh basil leaves (optional)
Salt and Pepper to taste

6 oz (w) shredded mozzarella cheese
1 cup sliced broccoli or rapini

Jumbo muffin tray (has 6 one-cup depressions - standard muffin/cupcake tins have 12 half-cup spaces)

1. Preheat oven to 375°F.  Top and tail the eggplant (slice off stem end and the little nub at the opposite end). Cut into 1/4-inch rounds. To size the rounds, place the smallest 6 into the muffin tin, trimming if necessary to get them to fit on the bottom. Repeat for the middle layer and top layers, which will be successively larger. The final layer of eggplant rounds should be approximately the same size as the top of the muffin opening. 

2. Beat egg with water in a small bowl. Mix the bread crumbs, oregano and half of the grated parmesan cheese in another bowl or dish large enough for eggplant rounds to lie flat. 

3. Dip each eggplant round into the egg, and then press into the panko mixture. Flip gently and press the mixture onto the other side. Place on a half-sheet pan lined with parchment paper or Silpat baking mat.
4. Bake for 15 minutes, then flip the slices and return to oven for another 15-20 min, rotating the baking sheet for more even cooking.  At this point, the bread crumbs are crispy and the eggplant nicely softened and dehydrated (ready to imbibe the sauce - just as with my Szechuan dry-fried green beans). The slices can be cooled and refrigerated for later at this point.

5. In a food processor, combine the sauce ingredients and puree. If using fresh basil, reserve some for garnish. Taste and adjust seasonings if necessary. Cut a stem of broccoli so that the pieces are relatively small, no more than 1/2 inch.

6. Place the smallest toasted eggplant slices in the bottoms of the muffin cups. Top with 1 Tbs of tomato sauce and 1 Tbs of mozzarella. Sprinkle on some broccoli or rapini. Repeat with the other two layers, but using 1.5 Tbs of sauce and mozzarella. Evenly divide the remaining grated parmesan among the cups. Bake for 10-12 minutes or until cheese is melted and as browned as you like. Let cool for 3-5 min before running a plastic knife around the edges to unmold. Garnish with reserved basil leaves (optional).

🐾 Although this makes 6 large eggplant parmesan muffins, some people may want to eat 2. 
🐾 I could only find fire roasted tomatoes with the mild green chilis that are intended for Tex-Mex dishes. After tasting the puree, I added 1/2 tsp of sugar to balance out the slight bitterness introduced by the chilis.  A 14.5 oz (w) can has 1.8-1.9 cups (around 440 mls).



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