I had intended to unload everything on my mind in one massive post, but that's proved to be impossible, so I will come at you in sections. Here's the Aubergine Variation.
Eggplant Parmesan -
For some reason we are finding beautiful eggplant right now (in January!) and I can only assume they are arriving from our Neighbors Down South (hemispherically) - but at a buck apiece, I'm not complaining. This variation of Eggplant Parmesan worked out very well - I like the addition of an embellished ricotta and the mozzarella (not the fancy kind) give it a slightly meaty feel, though it has nothing that would give a vegetarian pause.
You could certainly make your own (simple, quick, and not long-cooked) tomato sauce, but I find bottled more than acceptable - and I always doctor mine. However, might be best to wait for real summer for anything that needed tender fresh herbs, like basil.
Here's what I did with a couple of good-sized aubergines: You will need:
2 large eggplant (about 8" long), firm and unblemished
Extra-virgin olive oil
Dried (or fresh) thyme
A baking sheet, preferably non-stick, and aluminum foil to cover
For the fillings and other enhancements:
1 pint whole milk ricotta
1 Tbs minced or puréed garlic (I used the bottled stuff this time)
Red pepper flakes, in moderation, or to taste
1/3 cup finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
Ground black pepper
Pinch of salt
1/2 large white onion, finely diced
2 Tbs Extra virgin olive oil
1 quart simple tomato sauce (I used Classico Tomato & Basil)
1 lb mozzarella (vac-pak is fine here]
Reggiano-Parmesan - no substitutes! [However, you won't need that much...]
A baking dish (I used a plain glazed earthenware oval)
Preheat the oven to 400 deg F. Trim the ends of the eggplant, then cut into 1/2" slices. Sprinkle both sides of each with the salt, stack in a colander, and let drain of their (potentially bitter) juices for 20-30 mins. Drizzle a bit of oilive oil on the baking sheet. Dry off the eggplant slices on the paper towels, removing most of the salt as well. Lay the slices in a single layer in the pan, sprinkle on the fennel seed and the thyme, sprinkle with the olive oil, cover the whole thing with foil and bake in the oven for about 20 minutes.
While eggplant is baking (I had to do two pans - remove the baked slices to a plate to wait), sweat the diced onion in a saucepan in olive oil. Just sweat over low/medium heat until translucent, don't brown. Add the tomato sauce, plus about 1/2 cup water, and bring to a simmer. The added water will evaporate while the sauce and onions marry.
Assuming the eggplant has finished baking, reduce oven heat to 350 deg F.
In a bowl, mix the ricotta up with a fork, add the garlic, the pepper flakes, and the chopped parsley and blend. Season with salt and pepper [I pushed the salt slightly, but it disappeared in the baking]. Let the ricotta mixture rest. As it does, reduce the sauce back to it's bottled consistency, perhaps a little looser - this will be enough to incorporate the onion and mature the flavors. Cube the mozzarella.
In the baking dish, film the bottom with a spoonful of sauce. Make a layer of eggplant slices, then spoon each with enough of the ricotta mixture to cover. Spoon over these half of the tomato sauce, then spread lightly with a spatula to fill in gaps. The ricotta mixture is quite soft, so don't worry if it and the sauce seem to melt together a bit. Distribute half the mozzarella over that, then finely grate the R-Parmesan over that - generously. Then make another layer of eggplant, ricotta, sauce, mozzarella, and more R-Parmesan over the first one.
Place in the 350 deg F oven, uncovered, and bake for 45 minutes. It's done when the top layer of cheese is melted and lightly browned - bubbley and very hot. It's essential that it rest after baking for 20-30 minutes in order to pull together.