Even though it’s feeling like fall, we still have some eggplant in the garden, and last month we served eggplant alla parmigiana at the restaurant. In the past, we’ve avoided calling it that on the menu because it conjures up an entirely wrong image of that dish based on the American version: heavy, breaded eggplant with saccharine tomato sauce and industrial mozzarella cheese. The Italian version, as usual, is much more appealing to us: perfectly seasoned eggplant, light but substantial, coupled with a simple, bright tomato sauce, fresh mozzarella, and fresh basil from the garden.
Although the dish is called “alla parmigiana” (in the style of Parma) it is actually a dish from Naples. The origin of the name is lost to history. Some think it refers to the use of parmigiano-reggiano while others think it is a corruption of a word referring to shutters which are layer when closed, resembling the layering of eggplant in the dish. Personally, I like to think of it as a Neapolitan take on what they think the cooking of Parma is like. That is, it somewhat resembles lasagne, with its laying of rich but light ingredients. But the actual ingredients are totally Neapolitan: eggplant, tomatoes, and mozzarella di bufala. I actually like to add a little hot pepper as well. To me, it’s like a Neapolitan trying to be a Northern Italian but nonetheless showing his true colors at every step.
The key to every dish with eggplant is finding a way to cook it so that it is savory and meltingly rich without being oily, since eggplant absorbs a significant portion of oil. Cooks deal with this in various ways. Some bake or broil it (not a fan of this one), but the traditional way is to fry it in a lot of oil, with the theory that eggplant will absorb less oil if fried in an abundant amount of very hot oil. I did this for years following the advice of writer Marcella Hazan, and it goes give delicious results. But it began to bother me that the eggplant was absorbing flavorless vegetable oil rather than flavorful olive oil. One could deep fry the eggplant in olive oil of course (a la Mario Batali), but one needs to be well-off like Batali to afford such a method. Since eggplant absorbs oil, I wanted the eggplant to absorb the most flavorful olive oil I could find without breaking the bank. The solution I came up with is to use enough olive oil to cook the eggplant but no more. For me, this means coating the bottom of a saute pan completely with olive oil, but only just. When I place the eggplant slices in in a single layer, they will absorb the oil and brown. When I flip them over and lower the heat, they will actually begin to release some of that oil and that helps brown the second side. This method produces beautifully browned, meltingly tender eggplant, which has absorbed just the right amount of highest quality, flavorful olive oil. The result is that when the eggplant is baked, there is no excess oil which needs to be drained off. The dish is meltingly tender but not oily at all. Traditionally, eggplant is salted and allowed to sit for a a half hour or so while the salt draws out bitterness from the fruit. I do this if I use old, store-bought eggplant. However, I’ve never found fresh eggplant from the garden to be bitter. I still pre-salt it most of the time in order to give the salt time to incorporate itself into the eggplant, but I sometimes skip it if short on time. Some people find that salted eggplant absorbs less oil. Even when made in this lighter style, this dish (like lasagne) is still very rich and substantial. We favor small, appetizer sized portions.
Melanzane alla parmigiana (makes 4 small appetizer portions)
1) Peel, slice, and salt (optional) a pound of eggplant, preferably garden fresh and without seeds. If salting, allow to steep for 30 minutes or so. Slices should be ¼ to ½ inch thick based on preference.
2) Dry off the slices if salted, and brown in a pan with olive oil (see note above). If the eggplant absorbs all the oil very quickly, add a little more. There should be just enough.
3) When one side is browned (about 5 minutes or so), lower the heat and brown the other side. If the pan is really dry and the eggplant is not releasing some of its oil, add a little more. After 5 more minutes or so, the eggplant should be meltingly tender. Taste and correct for salt, and then let drain on paper towels.
4) Using the same pan and any residual oil (don’t add more unless there’s none left) add about ¾ cup tomatoes (fresh or high quality canned), a pinch of salt, and as much hot pepper as you dare. Cook over medium heat until broken down, about 5 minutes. Taste for salt.
5) In a small baking dish, place a layer of eggplant, and add a little of the tomatoes, some parmigiano-reggiano cheese, a little sliced mozzarella (preferably di bufala), and a little basil. Repeat with a second layer of all ingredients. If you sliced the eggplant thin, you might have enough for a third layer, but we don’t like to go higher than that. You’ll need about 4 ounces mozzarella total.
6) Bake at 425 degrees for about 15 minutes until bubbly. Run under the broil for a few moments, just enough to give a crust.