Oh eggplant. Such a delicious yet misunderstood vegetable – actually classifies as a berry, but we won’t go into that. For years it stayed on my ‘dislike’ list with the company of lima beans, escargot, and celery. Maligned and sullen it would lift its head at times, making hasty appearances in a bitter and slimy state surrounded with tomatoes and carrots in a melange of colors and textures. Never given its chance to shine through, it was often passed by.

That was until a young chef at an old family Italian restaurant made me eggplant parmesan. The sauce was rich, but not overpowering, the fresh basil popped through and just twisted the eggplant somehow into something new. It wasn’t bitter, nor was it slimy. Crunchy, flavorful, chewy and layered with fresh mozzarella and aged Parmigiano. It was simply delicious.

I found the trick to making this veggie shine was a quick, dry brine. Just enough to get the sauce going and leach out about one cupful of bitter juice from each bulbous fruit. This enough in itself to enjoy it grilled, roasted, pan fried or blended up in baba ganoush. With the bitterness gone the gentle rich and exotic flavor comes through.

In fact, many varieties, like the Japanese eggplant and smaller fruits don’t need this treatment, called “degorging,” instead they can be roasted whole and chopped into various dishes like curries or stir fries. Although I’ve learned to love the gentle abergine in all its varieties and forms, I still crave the original dish that turned me around.

Though I generally make my own parmesan sauce, you can easily substitute any marinara, and if without fresh basil leaves, dry will do just fine. Try to let your eggplant slices rest for at least a half hour covered in salt, enough time to leach out some of the bitter liquid, especially if on the large side. When it comes to frying or baking the breaded slices I tried it both ways and liked the drier, crisper baked version better, though it takes a little longer to brown up than frying.

For eggplant:

1 eggplant, cut into1/2 inch rounds, brined as above then rinsed and patted dry

2 eggs

1/4 cup milk

2 cups flour for dredging

4 cups light breadcrumbs

1 t salt

1/2 t pepper

8 whole basil leaves

4 balls fresh mozzarella

3 T shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano

For sauce:

2 T olive oil

1/2 large white onion

4 cloves garlic

1 t anchovies, minced or anchovy paste (optional)

1 t red pepper flakes

2 T fresh basil or 1 T dry basil

3 T tomato paste

1 cup red wine

14.5 oz can of tomato sauce

14.5 oz can of stewed tomatoes

pepper

Salt to taste (omit if using anchovies)

1/2 T Italian parsley, minced

While your eggplant is degorging get your sauce started. That way it can cook while you bread and bake the eggplant. Heat olive oil in a medium sauce pan over medium-high heat. Saute onions until translucent, about 3-4 minutes. Add garlic and cook briefly, about 30 seconds, until fragrant. Add anchovies if using, red pepper flakes and basil, saute for another 3-4 minutes, mixing thoroughly with onions and garlic. Add tomato paste and saute for another 4-5 minutes, or until it darkens and begins to brown. This will give it a rich depth of flavor. Deglaze with red wine and let reduce by half. Add tomatoes and season to taste. Let simmer for about one half hour.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. After you have rinsed off the eggplant pat it dry lightly. Mix eggs and milk in a small bowl. Mix breadcrumbs with salt and pepper. Dredge each slice in flour, dip it into the egg mixture letting the excess drip off, then press into the breadcrumbs until both sides are well covered. Place in a foil-lined pan. Continue with remaining slices until all are breaded. Bake until light brown and crisp, about 20 minutes.

To ready dish for baking, ladle a small amount of sauce into an 8×8 baking dish to cover the bottom. Place a layer of eggplant, a leaf of basil on each slice, then cover with mozzarella, then sauce and finally Parmigiano. Repeat another layer but with cheeses on top. Bake until cheese has melted and sauce bubbles, about 15-20 minutes. Let stand for ten minutes, plate and garnish with parsley. Makes 4 servings.

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