Eggplant Parmesan -- a richly flavored Southern Italian vegetarian treat
Eggplant Parmesan, or
Melanzane alla Parmigiana, may have originated in Sicily, though it is now more
associated with the Naples region. The province of Parma, and the wonderful
cow’s milk cheese Parmigiano Reggiano, named for that province plus the
neighboring province of Reggio Emilia, are northern Italian. But the baked
eggplant dish, despite the northern name and typically being seasoned with that
northern cheese, is classically southern Italian in style with vibrant tomato
sauce playing off against cheese and breaded “meaty” vegetable and olive oil.
Several later variants of the originally eggplant dish, which substitute thinly
sliced breaded meat for the sliced eggplant, include Veal Parmesan and Chicken
As wonderful as eggplant
can be, it has several unpleasant characteristics to overcome. The bitterness
from traces of nicotine-like alkaloids (eggplant is related to tobacco, after
all) needs to be salted out or roasted out. Eggplant also requires proper
cooking to not be rubbery or spongy or have tough skin.
For a large casserole
dish of Eggplant Parmesan you will first need to make a tomato sauce (sometimes
confusingly called “Marinara” – sailor’s sauce) and grate mozzarella cheese
plus a little Parmigiano cheese or Romano cheese -- which I prefer, but I grew
up around Sicilians.
3 extra large cloves
1 large can (28 ounces)
crushed tomatoes (Hunts brand or Progresso are good)
3/4 cup water (rinse the
tomato can with it before adding to the cooking)
2 1/2 teaspoons sugar
(amount will depend on the acidity of the tomatoes)
1/8 teaspoon ground
Salt to taste (1/2 - 1
teaspoon or more)
2 large fresh basil
Crush the garlic (press
under a drinking glass or with the side of a knife) and remove the skin. Fry
the garlic slowly in the olive oil in a large non-corrosive pot (enamel,
stainless steel, etc.) until just starting to turn golden. Remove and discard
the garlic pieces.
Add the tomatoes, water, sugar,
paprika, cloves, and a little salt. Bring to a rapid boil, stirring frequently,
and let simmer 3 minutes, stirring occasionally.
(Partially cover the pot, since the tomato
splatters; move pot from the heat before stirring to reduce splatter.) Taste
and add salt if necessary, and a little more sugar if too acidic. Stir in the
basil and remove from the heat.
cool. (Stores in refrigerator up to 5 days or freezes up to several months.)
3 tablespoons salt for
the soaking water
1 1/2 teaspoons salt for
seasoning the flour
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 teaspoon ground
2 cups unseasoned
breadcrumbs, plus more as needed
4 tablespoons (approx.)
olive oil for drizzling
Cut off stem end and the
very bottom of eggplants. With a vegetable peeler, peel a narrow strip off from
top to bottom on four sides of the eggplant. Slice eggplants crosswise 3/8-inch
thick. In a large bowl dissolve the 3 tablespoons salt and about three quarts
of water. Immerse the eggplant slices, and mix them around occasionally, and
soak them for 30 minutes or more to get out the bitter juices.
In a bowl, beat the eggs
with a fork. In a separate bowl, mix the flour, 1-1/2 teaspoons salt, pepper
and nutmeg. In a third bowl place the breadcrumbs.
Drain the soaked eggplant
slices. Dredge them a few at a time in the seasoned flour. Tap them to shake
off excess flour and dip them in the egg, shake off the excess then put them in
the breadcrumb bowl to lightly coat them, Tap the slices to shake off excess
crumbs. Place them on one of several baking sheets (lined with parchment paper
if available), close but not touching.
When all slices are
breaded, drizzle them each with a little olive oil. Bake them in a 350-degree
oven 15-20 minutes, or until starting to turn golden and become tender to the
touch. Let cool.
Assembling the casserole:
4 cups grated mozzarella
1/4 cup grated Parmesan
or Romano cheese
Heat the oven to 360
Smear some of the tomato
sauce to wet the bottom of a large, attractive 10-by-13-inch baking dish (or
several smaller ones), from which the eggplant will be served. Place almost
half the roasted eggplant slices tightly together or slightly overlapping to
cover the bottom of the casserole. Cut some eggplant slices into quarters to
fit into the spaces around the edge. Sprinkle half of the mozzarella and half the
other cheese over the eggplant. Spoon about half the remaining sauce evenly
onto the cheese layer. Place the second layer of eggplant (it will be the top
layer) onto the first layer, using up the eggplant slices except for a few to
cut to fill in spaces. Spread the remaining sauce over this layer, then
sprinkle the remaining cheeses on top.
Bake on the lower shelf
of the oven until bubbling on the edges and the cheese on the top browns
somewhat, 35-45 minutes. Turn the dish once or twice during the baking.
Serve hot with a salad
and crusty bread.