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If you've never tried eggplant, this Grilled Eggplant Sandwich with Garlic-Basil Aioli is a great way to take your first taste. Photo by Sue Doeden

Sandwich for a 'change'

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A couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to attend a lecture at the College of St. Benedict in St. Joseph, Minn. If the word lecture brings back memories of a boring college professor you once had to listen to, Jay Weinstein would definitely reframe the meaning of that word for you.

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Weinstein, New York chef and author of "The Ethical Gourmet," spoke with passion about our responsibility to become stewards of the earth, making choices that protect our land and its bounty.

According to Weinstein, some of the simplest changes we make will create a difference in what we see on our supermarket shelves and on dinner plates. First, he suggested checking out new areas of your favorite supermarket. Peruse the natural and organic area. Take your time strolling down the international aisle. Take home a new kind of grain to experiment with, such as quinoa or amaranth. Next, shop at a market you've never visited. And how about choosing a couple of days each week to be meatless days?

If you are already incorporating more plant-based meals into your week, or treating meat as a side to go along with your fruits and vegetables, or eating meat just once in a while, you could be called a flexitarian. All kinds of research is suggesting that eating more fruits, grains, vegetables and legumes while consuming meat only in moderation is good for us and good for our environment. Flexible eaters do just that.

If you're up to Weinstein's "change" challenge, an easy way to begin is to try a new fruit or vegetable and use it in a meatless meal. Grilled Eggplant Sandwiches with Garlic-Basil Aioli may be the motivation you need to get started.

Eggplant is available year 'round at super markets, and there may be a few still adorning local farmers' markets with their shiny, taut, deep purple skin. If you've never tried eggplant, this sandwich is a great way to take your first taste. And, if you think eggplant makes waste of a good sandwich, you haven't had this one yet.

One small eggplant will yield the eight slices needed for the sandwiches, and no peeling is necessary. Choose an eggplant with smooth, shiny skin. It should feel firm, but not rock hard. The flesh should spring back like a sponge when pressed lightly. When grilled, the eggplant disks become creamy.

Thin slices of soft, fresh mozzarella are placed on top of each slice of eggplant as it cooks on the grill or in a grill pan. Fresh mozzarella has a delicate taste and is quick-melting, making it a perfect choice for this sandwich. The fresh mozzarella we buy in the grocery store most often is made with cow's milk. It's packed in water to help preserve its freshness. Use it soon after you bring it home from the store.

Fresh red bell pepper, toasted pine nuts and thinly sliced red onion finish the filling. Dense bread needs to be grilled for this sandwich and then slathered with Garlic-Basil Aioli (I say ay-OH-lee. Rachael Ray says eye-OH-lee.), a garlicky mayonnaise-type spread. I like to make it at least a few hours before I'm ready to assemble the sandwiches, so the flavors have time to develop as it rests in the refrigerator.

You'll be amazed at how delicious this sandwich made of eggplant tastes. Do try it. Jay Weinstein believes tiny changes, made one at a time, can produce impressive positive results.

Grilled Eggplant Sandwiches with Garlic-Basil Aioli not only taste good, they're good for your health, the health of your family, and the health of our earth. Steward of the earth, what will your next change be?

Grilled Eggplant Sandwiches with Garlic-Basil Aioli

1/4 cup reduced-fat mayonnaise

5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided

1 tablespoon fresh-squeezed lemon juice

1 chubby garlic clove, minced

2 to 4 tablespoons chopped fresh basil

8 slices eggplant, 1/2-inch-thick

1/2 teaspoon garlic powder

8 slices whole-grain batard or dense bread of your choice

8 thin slices fresh mozzarella cheese

1/4 cup pine nuts, toasted

1 large red bell pepper, seeds removed, cut into 4 pieces

4 thin slices red onion

At least a couple of hours before serving, prepare Garlic-Basil Aioli by combining mayonnaise, 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil, lemon juice and garlic in a small mixing bowl. Cover tightly and refrigerate.

When ready to prepare sandwiches, brush the remaining olive oil over both sides of each slice of eggplant and bread. Place eggplant slices directly on the grate of a grill at medium heat. Using all of the garlic powder, sprinkle a little on each slice. Grill the eggplant for about 5 minutes, then, using a spatula, flip each slice. Top each with a slice of mozzarella. Continue grilling until the cheese is melted and the eggplant is tender. Toast prepared bread slices on the grill, one to two minutes per side.

To assemble sandwiches, first stir chopped basil into mayonnaise mixture. Spread Garlic-Basil Aioli on one side of each slice of toasted bread. Top 4 of the slices with eggplant, with its cheese side up. Evenly distribute toasted pine nuts on cheese. Top with red bell pepper slices, red onions and remaining slices of bread. Cut in half and serve warm. Makes 4 sandwiches.

Tips from the cook

--Fresh mozzarella can be found in most supermarkets. I find it in the deli cheese case.

--To toast pine nuts, place them in a single layer in a small pan over medium heat. Stir them and watch carefully. They burn easily. As soon as they become golden, transfer the pine nuts to a plate to cool.

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