Eggplant Parmigiana: Not from Parma

It’s hard to believe, but eggplant parmigiana is not from Parma. (We never misidentify food. Well, except for Belgian waffles, French toast, Brussels sprouts—OK, never mind.) Eggplant parmigiana originated in southern Italy, and is usually misrepresented in English as eggplant parmesan (meaning “of Parma” which is in northern Italy). This is probably due to the fact that the recipe usually calls for loads of Parmesan cheese.

Of course, Italian versions call for parmesan cheese as well. It’s just that if you go to Parma, this dish isn’t exactly a local specialty. Anyway, unlike its bastardized chicken and veal cousins, eggplant parmigiana is a hearty, authentically Italian, vegetarian-friendly dish. (Just to clue you in, most traditional Italian cuisine was based on vegetables or seafood. Think about it. Do they really have a ton of room to raise beef?)

This recipe comes from Lidia’s Italian-American Kitchen by Lidia Matticchio Bastianich. It takes some doing, but it’s worth it.

Eggplant Parmigiana

Serves 6

  • 3 medium eggplants or 5-6 smaller eggplants (I had small eggplants so that’s what I used.)
  • 1 T coarse sea or kosher salt
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1 t salt
  • Flour for dredging
  • 2 C fine, dry bread crumbs
  • ½ C vegetable oil
  • ½ C olive oil
  • Tomato sauce (Lidia wants you to make your own, but you can use a jarred variety. Just make sure it’s a basic sauce—nothing fancy. Just garlic, a bit of basil, and some hot pepper flakes should do it.)
  • 2 C grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
  • 12 fresh basil leaves
  • 1 lb fresh mozzarella or Italian Fontina cheese (OK, I was making this on the fly and didn’t have this level of cheese in my kitchen. So, my version came out a bit lower on the dairy scale.)

Trim the stems and ends from the eggplants. Remove strips of peel about 1” wide from the eggplants, leaving about half the peel intact. Cut the eggplant lengthwise into ½-inch slices, and place in a colander. Sprinkle with coarse salt and let drain for 1 hour. Rinse under cool running water, drain thoroughly, and pat dry.

Eggplant Draining in a Collander

Whisk the eggs and 1 t salt together. (Lidia spells out the type of pan to use. I am a rebel and just used some shallow bowls.) Spread the flour and bread crumbs in an even layer in two separate bowls or over sheets of wax paper. Dredge the eggplant slices in flour, shaking off the excess. Dip the floured eggplant into the egg mixture, turning to coat both sides evenly. Lay the eggplants in the breadcrumbs. Turn to coat both sides.

Pour both oils into a medium skillet. (I used a sauté pan.) Heat over medium-high heat until a corner of one of the eggplant slices gives off a lively sizzle when dipped into the oil. Add as many eggplant slices as fit without touching and cook, turning once, until well browned on both sides, about 6 minutes. Remove to a baking pan lined with paper towels and repeat with remaining eggplant. (Adjust heat, add oil as necessary.)

Fried Eggplant

Yes, you could eat them just like this. But where's your sense of adventure?

Preheat oven to 375°. Heat the tomato sauce to simmering. Ladle enough sauce into a 9×13-inch baking dish to cover the bottom. Sprinkle with an even layer of grated cheese and top with a layer of fried eggplant, pressing it down gently. Tear a few leaves of basil over the eggplant and ladle about ¾ C of the sauce to coat the top evenly. Sprinkle an even layer of grated cheese over the sauce and top with a layer of mozzarella or Fontina, using about one-third of the cheese. Repeat the layering as described above two more times, ending with a top layer of sliced cheese that leaves a border of about 1” around the edges. (I ended with the grated cheese as I omitted the mozza layer.) Drizzle sauce around the border and sprinkle top layer with the remaining grated cheese. (Again, I omitted the sauce drizzle.)

Cover the baking dish loosely with foil and poke several holes in the top with a knife. Bake for 30 minutes. Uncover, and continue baking until the top layer of cheese is gold in spots, about 15 minutes. Let rest 10-20 minutes, then cut into squares and serve.

Results

Whew. This is a lot of work. Definitely NOT an after work on Monday sort of meal. But, it is a nice Sunday dish. Or, some day when you can make a mess in the kitchen and not really worry about it for a bit. It reheats nicely as well.

My one major complaint is that the fresh basil just didn’t really do much of anything for the dish. I didn’t actually taste it over the sauce (and, it was fresh basil from the garden… picked fresh that day). I also felt that it was plenty fine with the amount of cheese that I used. (But, I’m lactose intolerant, so I’m pretty adverse to cheese anyway.)

Eggplant Parmigiana

I served this with a side of beet leaf salad and arugula from the garden. (No, not beets. That would be ew. Beet leaves as in the green bits that grow above ground on top of the actual beet part. They are bitter but tasty.)

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