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Simply Savor: Italian-layered Eggplant, Pepper, Tomato and Onion

By Courtney May, Dietetic Intern

The Mediterranean Diet is rich in olive oil, fruits, vegetables, and whole grains and has been linked to reduced rates of cardiovascular disease and cancer due to its high content of antioxidants, fiber and other beneficial nutrients [i]. Take advantage of seasonal summer produce with this versatile and easy-to-build dish that can be either a main or side.  If consumed as the main dish, consider serving it over fiber-rich farro or whole grain pasta and add your favorite marinara sauce, if it suits you. Make it Greek by layering some of this dish with Greek yogurt in a whole grain pita pocket. If serving as a side, reduce the portion slightly, and serve alongside a lean protein like baked fish or chicken. This dish can also be assembled raw and stored in the refrigerator 24-48 hours prior to cooking.  Leftovers are just as good served cold for when it’s too hot to turn on the stove.

Ingredient Highlights

Eggplant, Red Pepper, Tomato: These vegetables are rich in antioxidants and insoluble fiber.  Tomato and red pepper are particularly high in the carotenoid lycopene which has protective benefits against cardiovascular disease and various cancers such as prostate, esophageal, stomach, colon, and more. Pro tip: cooking foods with lycopene actually increases their bioavailability, or the amount digested upon consumption[ii].  Although not quite as rich, eggplant does contain some lycopene as well. These vegetables also are rich in insoluble fiber, which promotes prebiotic activity in the colon and also will make you feel fuller longer to help with weight management[iii]

Extra-Virgin Olive Oil: Olive oil is high in antioxidants known as polyphenols. These have a protective effect against cellular damage therefore reducing cancer cell growth. Olive oil is rich in vitamins C and E which prevent the degeneration of cellular DNA. Olive oil is high in unsaturated (healthy) fat. Substituting healthy fats for unhealthy fats (saturated fat) can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease [i].

Farro: Farro is a whole grain rich in soluble fiber. In the colon, these fibers are digested into short chain fatty acids (SCFAs) which have been shown to decrease tumor cell growth, inhibit the circulation of potentially harmful and carcinogenic bile acids. Fiber also increases fecal bulk, reducing interaction time between carcinogens and the lining of the colon, which is one reason high fiber diets can decrease risk for colon cancer[iv]

Recipe

Ingredients

  • 1 large or 2 small purple eggplant (about 1.5 pounds), sliced into 1/2 inch-thick rounds
  • 2-3 red, yellow, or orange bell peppers, seeds and white portions removed, sliced into 2 inch pieces
  • 1.5 pints cherry tomatoes, halved or substitute for 1.5 pounds chopped tomatoes of your choice
  • 1 medium purple onion, thinly sliced into whole rounds
  • 1 small bunch of basil
  • 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil, plus more for serving
  • 2 cups pearled farro
  • Salt and black pepper, to taste
  • Grated parmesan cheese, to taste

Instructions:

  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
  2. Wash and cut eggplant.  If time permits: lightly salt the eggplant and layer in a colander and let sit while other ingredients are prepared or pat dry to remove excess water.
  3. Wash and cut your choice of pepper, halve the tomato, then peel and slice red onion. Set aside.
  4. Using a 9 x 12 baking dish, layer eggplant at the bottom of the dish and drizzle the extra virgin olive oil. Then, layer peppers over, drizzling again with the oil and salt to taste.
  5. Next, layer tomato with oil, followed by sliced red onion on top. Finish with more oil and salt and pepper to taste. Bury some basil underneath the sliced onion. 
  6. Bake the dish for approximately 45-50 minutes or until the eggplant is tender and soft.  
  7. Prepare the farro. While the vegetables are cooking, rinse farro and bring 4-5 cups of lightly salted water to a boil. Add farro to the boiling water and cover.  Let cook in boiling water for 2-3 minutes, then reduce heat to low and cover for 15-20 minutes or until the farro has absorbed most of the liquid. When it’s tender and chewy, remove from heat and drain excess water.  
  8. Serve a square of the main dish over cooked farro along with other desired vegetables, legumes or greens. Sprinkle with parmesan cheese, mozzarella, or more olive oil to taste.

References:

[i] Mentella MC, Scaldaferri F, Ricci C, Gasbarrini A, Miggiano GAD. Cancer and Mediterranean Diet: A Review. Nutrients. 2019;11(9):2059. Published 2019 Sep 2. doi:10.3390/nu11092059

[ii] Kris-Etherton PM, Hecker KD, Bonanome A, et al. Bioactive compounds in foods: their role in the prevention of cardiovascular disease and cancer. Am J Med. 2002;113 Suppl 9B:71S-88S. doi:10.1016/s0002-9343(01)00995-0

[iii] Dreher ML. Whole Fruits and Fruit Fiber Emerging Health Effects. Nutrients. 2018;10(12):1833. Published 2018 Nov 28. doi:10.3390/nu10121833

[iv] Aune D. Plant Foods, Antioxidant Biomarkers, and the Risk of Cardiovascular Disease, Cancer, and Mortality: A Review of the Evidence. Adv Nutr. 2019;10(Suppl_4):S404-S421. doi:10.1093/advances/nmz042

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