Eggplant Parmesan (Parmigiana di melanzane), is a truly classic Italian dish that has become immensely popular around the world, even spawning other versions of "Parmesan"-style dishes that don't really exist in Italy (or at least not under this name), such as Chicken Parmesan, Veal Parmesan, etc. It is, however, sometimes made with zucchini in place of eggplant in Italy: Parmigiana di zucchine. In spite of the name, which means "Parma-style Eggplant," it originates in Naples, not the Emilia-Romagna town of Parma. Presumably, it refers to the use of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese in the dish, together with the more typically Neapolitan mozzarella cheese. Use the freshest and most flavorful eggplants you can find, though this dish will still be fantastic with winter eggplants, and use buffalo mozzarella, if possible, which is incredibly tender and far more flavorful that cow's-milk mozzarella.
The Italian-American version is usually breaded before frying, but the traditional Italian version is not. I used to think I didn't like Eggplant Parmesan, to be honest, because it was so heavy and didn't really taste much of eggplant. Then I tried it this way, and not only is it lighter and faster and easier to prepare, you can really taste the rich eggplant flavor -- it's not masked by breading or too much rubbery cheese. If you are a fan of eggplant, then I think you will prefer this recipe as well. If you want to make it even lighter, you could grill or bake the eggplant slices instead of fry them.
While Eggplant Parmesan is usually served over pasta (often spaghetti) in the U.S., that's not the tradition in Italy. I have to say, however, that this in an instance in which I don't necessarily feel that following tradition makes for a better experience -- the sauce made with this dish tastes absolutely wonderful over pasta, and the pasta helps to cut the richness/saltiness so that the balance is just perfect.
However you do it, this is an incredibly comforting dish that makes a hearty side (contorno) or a satisfying meatless/vegetarian main, together with a salad and some crusty Italian bread. Serve with a full-bodied Merlot or Chianti.
- FOR THE EGGPLANTS:
- 2 1/2 pounds (1.13 kilograms) eggplant (about 2-3 medium eggplants)
- Coarse sea salt
- FOR THE TOMATO SAUCE:
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 clove garlic, peeled, trimmed (slice off the hard stem end), and finely minced
- 1 small onion, peeled, trimmed (slice off the hard stem end), and finely chopped
- 2 cups (1/2 liter) tomato puree (passata di pomodoro)
- Fine sea salt, to taste
- FOR THE PARMIGIANA:
- 2 small eggs
- 1/2 cup (2.5 ounces/70 grams) freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
- One 9-ounce (250-gram) ball of fresh, soft mozzarella (preferably buffalo mozzarella) (do not use hard, aged mozzarella cheese, use the fresh kind that comes packed in water), torn into large pieces (you can use your hands for this)
- About 1 cup fresh small basil leaves, washed dried and coarsely chopped (optional)
- You will also need plenty of paper towels and an 8" x 11" baking dish.
To prepare the eggplants:
Wash and dry the eggplants. Slice off the cap end and then slice the eggplants lengthwise into 1/4-inch (1/2 centimeter) thick slices. Arrange the slices on large trays or baking sheets lined with several layers of paper towels, and sprinkle them with lightly coarse salt on both sides. Set aside for 30 minutes to let the salt draw out the excess water. (You can also stack the slices in a large colander, set in a sink, with salt sprinkled between each layer.)
After an hour, pat/wipe excess water and salt off of the eggplant slices, rinse them, then dry them well with paper towels, pressing down to dry them thoroughly. Set aside and make the tomato sauce.
(If you're concerned about fat or sodium or just don't want to bother, you can skip the salting step -- but that's the way it's done in Italy. Some Italians say that salting them is to "draw out bitterness," but it's really mainly to draw out excess water. Salting them, according to cooking science great Harold McGee, has the added virtue of making the eggplant absorb less oil during frying.)
To make the tomato sauce:
Heat the olive oil in a medium pot with the minced garlic and chopped onion. Saute over medium heat until onion is softened and translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the tomato puree. Season to taste with salt (if you're salting the eggplant, then go easy on the salt in the sauce, or omit it completely), then cover and simmer over low heat for 15 to 20 minutes, until the sauce is flavorful and slightly thickened. Meanwhile, fry the eggplants:
To fry the eggplants:
Heat about 1/4 inch of vegetable oil in a large skillet over medium heat; when hot, fry the eggplant slices, 2-3 at at a time, until well browned on each side (give each slice a final pat-down with a paper towel before frying -- if they're not as dry as possible, they won't brown well and might cause the oil to spatter), about 3 to 5 minutes. As you remove each fried slice, let it drain on a paper-towel lined plate or tray. Adjust the burner temperature and oil level as you fry to keep them constant.
To assemble the parmigiana:
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit (180 degrees Celsius).
When the tomato sauce is done, transfer it to a large mixing bowl. Transfer about 1/3 of the tomato sauce to a smaller mixing bowl. When the tomato sauce has cooled to room temperature, add the eggs to the remaining 2/3 of sauce and mix well to combine. Be sure to let the sauce cool before adding the eggs -- we are not trying to make tomato egg drop soup here!
Cover the bottom of a small 8-inch by an 11-inch rectangular baking dish with a thin layer of the eggless tomato sauce, then cover that layer of sauce with a horizontal layer of fried eggplant slices (use your biggest slices for this first layer -- they can overlap a bit). Cover the eggplants with a layer of egg-tomato sauce, then a generous sprinkling of grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, a sprinkling of chopped basil (if using), then pieces of mozzarella, distributed evenly. Cover the mozzarella with another layer of eggplant, then egg-tomato sauce, Parmigiano, basil, mozzarella, and another layer of eggplant. Repeat until ingredients are used up. The top layer should be a layer of the eggless tomato sauce, topped with a final sprinkling of grated Parmigiano (if you prefer a cheesier topping, you can also sprinkle some mozzarella pieces on top. (If you wind up with extra (eggless) tomato sauce and fried eggplant, use it to make Pasta alla Norma.)
Bake for 30 minutes; the cheese on top should be melted and golden brown.
I know it will be difficult to resist your delicious-smelling, steaming-hot parmigiana, but technically you should let it rest for at least an hour after cooking, to absorb any excess liquid and let the flavors develop -- it will also become more tender and flavorful as it rests. (And this is one of those things that tastes even better the next day.)
(For a video of all the steps, visit this page.)