Eggplant Involtini with Ricotta and Pesto

Eggplant Involtini is the perfect Italian comfort food. Think lasagna, but with eggplant in place of the noodles, wrapped like little packages around a filling of ricotta cheese and pesto. Read on, or jump to the recipe HERE.

Eggplant Involtini with Ricotta and Pesto

This is the first year I’ve grown eggplants, and to be honest, I kind of forgot they were there. A friend had given me a small plant she’d started, and after putting it in the ground (right behind our massive pumpkin plants) it quickly became buried behind all the leaves and vines.

Then one day as I was picking my way through the pumpkins to water, I discovered I not only had a plant, but it had two big, beautiful eggplants ready to be harvested. (Yeah, I do NOT have a green thumb, but blind luck has served me pretty well.)

Upon finding them, I posted this photo to Instagram, asking for your advice. Because, while I didn’t have anything against eggplants, I had yet to find a way of preparing them that I truly loved.

So I asked you guys for help, and I was not disappointed. I got so many great suggestions (all the way from baba ganoush to a spicy sichuan dish called yu xiang), but in the end, the thing that caught my attention the most was a single, one word comment: Involtini.

Eggplant Involtini with Ricotta and Pesto

What is involtini, you ask? Something I’d never made before, that’s what. The word “involtini” can mean a variety of dishes that have an outer layer (in this case eggplant) wrapped around a filling (in this case ricotta cheese and rich, herby pesto).

It sounds simple enough — and it is — but the best part, and perhaps what sold me on trying it for myself, is the part where the whole dish is baked in a bubbling pool of freshly made tomato sauce. Our tomatoes were just turning red, growing so heavy on the vine that it dragged down to the ground, and my friend Joyce had just given me the biggest bag of fresh basil from her garden, so much that I could’ve wallpapered our kitchen with it. It’s hard to go wrong with ingredients so fresh, so off I went to make my first involtini.

Eggplant Involtini with Ricotta and Pesto
Eggplant Involtini with Ricotta and Pesto

Eggplant involtini is a very simple dish to make. It takes a little time to bring all the elements together (the pesto, the tomato sauce), but each step is easy and straightforward, so you’re not likely to mess it up. I’m not gonna lie, I barely even glanced at a recipe before diving in to make my own. But the amount of flavor and richness you get for your efforts is hard to beat — for a vegetarian dish, it doesn’t get much more hearty and comforting. This is the kind of meal you’d want to make for guests so they feel at home, or for your family so they feel cared for. It’s like a hug from the inside.

The only thing missing is a good crunch, so I suggest serving a nice crusty bread alongside. I brushed mine with olive oil and garlic before toasting it on the grill, and in the words of The Husband “I could eat that tomato sauce on that bread all day long.” Add a simple salad on the side, and you’ve got a complete meal.

Eggplant Involtini with Ricotta and Pesto

What’s your favorite way to use eggplant? This is mine, now. Let me know yours in the comments below!

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Eggplant Involtini with Ricotta and Pesto
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Eggplant Involtini is the perfect Italian comfort food. This particular recipe is vegetarian and gluten free... until you add slices of toasted bread on the side, which is a must. If you can't have gluten, I highly recommend finding a good gluten-free bread you can toast and serve to sop up all that amazing tomato sauce!
Serves: 4
For the tomato sauce:
  • 2 lbs. fresh roma tomatoes, seeds removed and roughly chopped*
  • 3-4 cloves garlic, minced
  • ¼ tsp. dried oregano
  • pinch of red pepper flakes
  • salt, to taste
  • 1 tsp. balsamic vinegar
  • ¼ cup fresh basil, chopped
For the filling:
  • ¾ cup ricotta cheese (I recommend the full fat variety)
  • ⅓ cup fresh basil pesto (you can use storebought or homemade, see recipe notes**)
  • pinch of salt, to taste
For the involtini:
  • 2 medium-large eggplants (about 1 lb. each)
  • 2-3 TBSP olive oil
  • salt and pepper
  • all of the ricotta/pesto filling
  • all of the tomato sauce
  • ½ cup freshly grated parmesan cheese, divided
  • ½ cup toasted pine nuts
  • extra fresh basil, for garnish
  • Crusty bread, toasted, for serving
For the tomato sauce:
  1. Seed the tomatoes, and chop roughly. In a large non-reactive skillet (stainless steel or nonstick), add the olive oil, garlic, oregano, crushed read pepper flakes, and a pinch of salt. Saute for 1-2 minutes over medium heat. Add the tomatoes, increase the heat to high, and cook until the tomatoes have softened and broken down into a sauce (about 15-20 minutes). Transfer to a food processor and pulse until slightly chunky, or completely smooth, whichever you prefer. Return the sauce to the pan and stir in the basil and balsamic vinegar. Taste, and add more salt as needed. Set aside.
For the filling:
  1. Mix the ricotta and pesto together in a bowl. Taste, and add a bit of salt if needed. Set aside.
For the involtini:
  1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. and line two baking sheets with parchment.
  2. Remove the top and bottoms of the eggplants, and slice lengthwise into ¼-1/2 inch thick slabs. You should have about 12-14 slices. Arrange in a single layer on the prepared baking sheets, and drizzle both sides lightly with olive oil, turning the slices to coat. Season both sides with salt and pepper.
  3. Roast eggplant in the oven at 375 degrees F. for about 30 minutes, or until softened but not mushy. (Or, do as I did since it's too hot to turn the oven on, and place the roasting pan on a grill over a medium flame. If you go the grill route, keep a close eye on the eggplant and flip the slices once or twice to keep them cooking evenly. The time will vary depending on your grill.) Roast until the eggplant slices are soft and pliable. Remove from the heat and let cool until you can handle them easily.
  4. Pour all but about ½ cup of the tomato sauce into the bottom of a 9x12 inch baking dish.
  5. Spoon 1-2 TBSP of filling onto one end of each slice of eggplant. Roll the eggplant up around the filling, and place seam-side down into the sauced baking dish. Repeat until all of the eggplant is rolled and nestled into a single layer in the sauce. Top the involtini with the remaining sauce, sprinkle with half of the parmesan cheese, and bake until bubbly and hot all the way through (about 15-20 minutes in the oven at 375 degrees F., or do as I did and place on the grill over a low flame until heated through (time will vary)).
  6. Garnish with the remaining parmesan, toasted pinenuts, and basil. Serve with crusty bread, preferably toasted (or brushed with olive oil and garlic, and grilled).
*I chose to use fresh tomatoes because they are too hard to resist when they're in season. The best tomatoes for a sauce like this are Roma, because they have a lot of meat and fairly few seeds, but if you happen to have a lot of heirloom tomatoes like I did, they'll work, too -- you'll just need more of them to make enough sauce. I left the peels on my tomatoes because I find I don't mind the texture, but if you'd prefer a smoother consistency to your sauce, you can remove the skins by cutting a small X in the bottom of each tomato, quickly blanching them in boiling water, and then plopping them into an ice bath. This will loosen the skins so you can peel them off easily with your fingers. Proceed with the recipe as written.

If fresh tomatoes aren't in season or you'd rather not bother with them, you could also use canned. I suggest going for whole canned tomatoes -- a big 48oz can should do. Use the canned tomatoes along with their juices, and cook them with the garlic and spices as you would fresh. Cooking canned tomatoes will help to remove their metalic, tinny taste, so don't skip it. Continue with the recipe as written.

**If you have fresh basil, I highly recommend turning it into homemade pesto for this recipe. You can find my homemade basil and sunflower seed pesto HERE -- in this case, I just swapped the sunflower seeds for toasted pine nuts to make a classic pesto.


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4 Responses to Eggplant Involtini with Ricotta and Pesto

  1. Ashlae August 26, 2016 at 9:23 am #

    We received a surplus of eggplant from a friend this week and I’ve been looking for ways to use it up because I can only eat roasted eggplant so. many. times. But I am totally down with some involtini action – I think a cultured cashew filling would make for a delicious replacement for the ricotta. Thanks for the inspo, lady!

    • Willow Arlen August 26, 2016 at 1:17 pm #

      I’m with you on that — normally I can’t get enough roasted veggies, but eggplant has it’s limits. A cashew filling would be a great vegan option! I hope you make it and let me know how it goes! :)

  2. Joyce August 27, 2016 at 10:40 am #

    This is awesome! Oregano, basil, and garlic are always a good combination. I often make eggplant in my Chinese way (tomato, tofu, green peppers, and tons of garlic and chili pepper). Can’t wait to try your recipe. Love all the nuts, herbs, and cheese. :)

    • Willow Arlen August 27, 2016 at 9:43 pm #

      Thanks, Joyce! You’re right, it’s hard to go wrong with oregano, basil, and garlic. I hope you give this a try, it’s so tasty! And as Ashlae pointed out, it should work well with a vegan replacement for the ricotta cheese if you want to do so. :)

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