Being a lover of good food, I find it almost impossible to answer the question ‘what’s your favorite dish?’ But if I had to, my answer would probably be Eggplant Parmesan—parmigiana di melanzane in Italian—the way Angelina used to make it.
This is a simple dish to make, but it involves several steps. Allow yourself a good two hours to prepare this dish. It tastes much better made ahead, so if you have the time, make it in the morning and have it for dinner or, even better, make it at your leisure the day before.
For the eggplant:
- 3-4 large eggplants
- 6 eggs
- 75g (3 oz) grated pecorino romano cheese
- A few sprigs of fresh parsley, finely chopped
- Salt and pepper
For the tomato sauce:
- 1 large can of tomatoes, preferably imported San Marzano
- 2-3 cloves of garlic, slightly crushed and peeled
- Olive oil
- A basil leaf or two
For assembling the parmigiana:
- 1 large ball of mozzarella cheese, preferably fresh
- 100g of grated Parmesan cheese
- A few fresh basil leaves, shredded
Step 1: Prepare the eggplant.
You begin with eggplant, of course. For this dish, the large, purple variety is preferable. You cut the eggplants into fairly thin slices. Now you should ‘purge’ them of their excess liquid, which can be bitter. Sprinkle the eggplant slices with salt, and then lay them in a colander laid on top of a plate. Cover the slices with a small plate on which you should place something a bit heavy like a can of beans or tomatoes. This will help press the liquid out of the eggplant. Leave them for about an hour.
You should notice a small puddle of brownish water below the colander, which you should discard, of course. Remove the slices from the colander and pat them dry.
Step 2: Fry the eggplant.
Now you dip the eggplant slices in flour, followed by an egg and cheese ‘bath’ made from beaten eggs, grated pecorino cheese, finely chopped parsley, salt and pepper. Shallow fry the eggplant slices over moderate heat until they are golden brown on the outside and tender inside.
You will need to fry the eggplant slices in batches. As each batch is done, drain and set on paper towels to absorb the excess oil as you continue with the next batch. Repeat until you’re done.
Step 3: Prepare the tomato sauce.
While this is going on, prepare a very light tomato sauce by combining chopped tomatoes (fresh if in season, but canned tomatoes are fine), a few leaves of fresh basil, salt, chopped garlic and just a few drops of olive oil. (Some people omit the olive oil altogether since the eggplant, even after draining, can be a bit oily.) Simmer for about 15 minutes, until the tomatoes have melted into a sauce If using canned tomatoes, add a bit of water to loosen the sauce before simmering. You will want a good amount of sauce, so be sure to make a potful–you can always any extra to dress pasta.
Step 4: Prepare the cheeses.
Take a large mozzarella, preferably fresh, and slice it. Grate lots of parmesan cheese, at least a cupful (you can grate it as you assemble the dish).
Step 5: Assemble the dish.
You are now ready to assemble the dish. In a bake-and-serve pan, place a layer of the fried eggplant slices, then a bit of the tomato sauce, then a few mozzarella slices, a bit of shredded basil (optional) and grated parmesan cheese. Season. Then add another layer of eggplant and continue until you’ve used up your ingredients. End with tomato sauce and parmesan. (Don’t put mozzarella on top, it will brown too quickly in the oven and burn.)
Step 6: Baking.
Bake in a hot oven (400 F, 200 C) for about 30 minutes, or until the dish is bubbling hot and the top a bit brown. Don’t worry if it even looks a bit ‘burnt’ around the edges–that’s normal and, to some tastes, the best part! Let the dish cool a bit before eating, at least 15 minutes. In fact, it tastes best made ahead and reheated (just a bit) before eating. It can also be eaten at room temperature. Just don’t eat it piping hot, because you will miss the full, wonderful flavors!
A friend from Naples once told me that this version of Eggplant Parmesan—made with eggplant slices dipped in egg—is typical of the interior of Campania, the region where Naples is located and of which it is the capital. In fact, that’s where Angelina was from, a small mountain town near Benevento. In Naples proper, this dish is made with eggplant slices that are simply lightly floured and fried. Most modern recipes you will find follow the Neapolitan method. I’ve tried it that way and it makes for a lighter dish. But I still like Angelina’s version best! For an even lighter dish, you can brush the eggplants with olive oil and grill them instead of frying. The result is actually very nice, but you are getting pretty far from the original flavor and texture of the classic dish. They also make this dish in Sicily (in fact, the Sicilians claim the dish is theirs-see below) but without the mozzarella cheese.
If you are pressed for time, you can skip the initial ‘purging’ of the eggplants. As long as the eggplants are reasonably fresh, it should not make that much difference. I sometimes skip this step myself. But be aware, there is a chance that the dish will have a bitter aftertaste. And if you want an even quicker dish, instead of a tomato sauce, you can use passata di pomodoro or crushed canned tomatoes–it will cook in the oven–a drizzle un filo d’olio over each layer.
Some recipes for Eggplant Parmesan call for baking the dish in a moderately slow oven and for a longer period, from 45 minutes up to an hour, raising the temperature at the very end if necessary to brown the top. The advantage of this method is that you are less likely to burn the top.
This dish can play many roles in an Italian meal. It can serve as an antipasto, as part of a buffet, as a light secondo or as a piatto unico: a single-dish meal in itself. And, to be honest, I even eat it, the morning after I make it, for breakfast!
By the way, as is typical for a popular dish with many variations, there are a good number of different stories about the origins of this dish. some of them place it in or around Naples, while say the dish originated in Sicily. Despite the name, however, it is very doubtful that this dish comes from Parma. The name may refer simply to the generous use of parmgiano cheese in the dish. Some early sources say that the parmigiani were known for making layered vegetable casseroles. The Sicilians say that the name comes from parmiciana, which the dialect word the slots in window shutters (persiane in proper Italian) since the eggplant slices lined up in the baking dish were said to resemble said shutters.
This interesting article discusses the various claims and their relative merits. If you can read Italian, Wikipedia also has an article on the dish. Both place the probable origin of Eggplant Parmesan to Campania and to the 18th century chef and writer Vincenzo Corrado.