- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 10, 2004

CONCORD, N.H. - It seemed like such a simple mission. Tired of the stereotype that vegetarian food is all sprouts and tofu, I set out to search for menu items that were hearty and satisfying. Nothing fussy or frilly would suffice. I wanted manly vegetarian food.

My first thoughts were veggie burgers and tofu dogs sizzling on the grill. Talk about stereotypes. Is there anything more supposedly manly in the culinary world than burning food over an open fire?

But while those are fine for family picnics, they didn’t rise to the level I wanted. I wanted food that is poker night (not that I play) manly. NASCAR (not that I watch) manly. Work on your car (not that I know how) and grunt manly.

That’s when I turned to my local pub. Cue the beer stereotype. Surely a den of ale and bawdy conversation also would contain clues for manly food, albeit meatless.

Not entirely. The problem with pubs is that if they are high enough on the food chain to have vegetarian options, they probably aren’t bawdy, and their veg options aren’t likely to be all that manly. I left when I saw sprouts on the menu.

Next up, a steakhouse. A national chain graciously agreed to provide its team of executive chefs, who were set to the task of creating several especially manly dishes.

It seemed promising, at least once we all understood that vegetarian means no meat. They had trouble with that at first.

Although the grilled vegetable sandwich and chili they came up with had appeal, I rejected both. The sandwich was a bit too involved. My goal was simplicity. And chili just seemed predictable. Manly still can be new and exciting.

Having now spent several weeks researching and hounding people for hearty recipes, I was prepared to give up. Then I discovered a tattered cookbook at a secondhand-book shop: a 1972 edition of “The Playboy Gourmet,” by Thomas Mario, then the very manly magazine’s food and drink editor.

I sensed we had a winner. The dust-jacket copy said it all when it described Mr. Mario’s recipes as “written by a man for men.”

Flipping through the book’s nearly 500 pages, I was pleased to see plenty of recipes for what I considered reasonable poker-night fare, including spareribs and an intriguing dish called Playboy paella.

Even the approach to cooking was more brutish than what most cookbooks offer. In this book, cheese isn’t simply grated. He shreds it by “forcing it through large holes of a square metal grater.”

The winner was a simple recipe — Mr. Mario’s hot beef hero sandwich. Or at least a modified version of it.

I liked the idea of a massive sandwich that could be assembled and set out for guests to cut their own lengths from. The only issue was the beef. A substitution had to be as substantive as beef, but fake meats weren’t even in the running.

Instead, I opted for eggplant slices that are liberally oiled before being topped with cheddar cheese and seared on a hot grill.

These eggplant steaks are great topped with slices of red onion, tomato and roasted red pepper.

The eggplant steaks can be sliced and grilled ahead of time. Leave off the cheese when grilling, then refrigerate until ready to use. Before adding to the sandwich, top with cheese and heat briefly in a microwave or low-temperature oven.

Extra-long eggplant “steak” hero sandwich

The preparation time is 20 minutes.

1 large eggplant, ends trimmed, cut lengthwise into 1/4-inch slices

1/4 cup olive oil

Kosher or other coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

2 cups shredded cheddar cheese

1 long baguette (several 1-foot-long submarine rolls also could be used), cut in half lengthwise

6 to 8 large lettuce leaves

2 large tomatoes, thinly sliced

1/3 cup chopped sun-dried tomatoes (oil-packed)

1 large red onion, sliced into thin rounds

4 hard-boiled eggs, peeled and sliced (optional)

3 to 4 roasted red peppers (either oil- or vinegar-packed), cut into thin strips

4 to 6 tablespoons Italian salad dressing

teaspoon dried oregano

Use olive oil or cooking spray to liberally coat the grate of a grill. Preheat the grill on high.

While grill heats, use a pastry brush or paper towel to coat both sides of each eggplant slice with olive oil. Season each slice with salt and pepper.

Place the slices on the grill, and cook, with the grill cover closed, for about 4 minutes, or until the underside has deep grill marks and is brown at the edges. Use tongs to flip the slices; cook for another 4 minutes.

Flip the slices a second time, then evenly distribute the cheese on the slices. Close the grill cover, and cook for 2 minutes, or until the cheese has melted completely.

To assemble the sandwich, set half of the bread on a long platter or across the table where it will be served.

Arrange the lettuce leaves over the length of the bread, then top with the eggplant, slices of tomato, sun-dried tomato, onion, eggs and strips of roasted pepper.

Top sandwich fillings with Italian dressing, and sprinkle with oregano. Top with other half of the bread.

To serve, supply a bread knife and allow guests to cut their own portions.

Makes 4 to 6 servings.

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