Don’t be surprised if you’re absolutely mad for eggplant parmesan. After all, the word for eggplant in Italian, melanzana, translates as, wait for it — “apple of madness.” So, grab some eggplants, and let’s get crazy.
There’s a crucial technique in this recipe: three-step breading. It can be applied to all sorts of things: scallopini, croquettes, pretty much anything fried. We’ll show you how to do it so your hands don’t end up an eggy, floury, breadcrumb-y mess.
If you happen to possess an Italian grandmother, after you read this article you may be tempted to drive her over to my place so she can give me a good piece of her mind. Who do I think I am, after all, talking about eggplant parmesan?
Well, settle down there, Skipperdee. Nobody’s trying to tell your nonna how to cook. I’m just trying to show those people who don’t have a nonna of their own how to make decent eggplant parmesan themselves. Dig?
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As with most things, a lot depends on your ingredients.
The eggplant: Almost any variety will do as long as they’re fresh and firm. I always use the standard purple eggplants. You know, the eggplanty-looking ones.
After peeling (or not — your choice), cut the eggplant into 1/2-inch rounds.
Many chefs salt the slices for 30 to 45 minutes to draw out moisture. Personally, I rarely bother, and mine turns out fine.
Next, the frying. Some people just fry it plain. Others dust with flour. I always use three-step breading: Place plenty of flour in a shallow bowl, egg wash (eggs beaten with a little water) in a second bowl and breadcrumbs in a third.
Note: I’ll say “knife hand” and “guide hand” for my left and right hands, respectively, as I’m left-handed. Also, because I’m left-handed, the three steps of flour, egg wash and breadcrumbs are arranged from left to right:
1. Using your knife hand, dredge your eggplant completely in flour, shaking off the excess.
2. Slip it into the egg wash, flipping it with your guide hand to cover completely.
3. Grab some breadcrumbs with your knife hand, then use your guide hand to move the slice into the breadcrumb bowl. Drop the other breadcrumbs over the top and use your knife hand to flip the slice, shake off excess breadcrumbs and lay it on a platter. (Your knife hand should still be dry even if your guide hand is damp with egg wash.)
4. Heat about a quarter inch of neutral oil in a good-sized, heavy-bottomed skillet over medium to medium-high heat. When it’s hot (about 375 degrees; it’ll look shimmery), lay the eggplant slices carefully in the oil without splashing, and don’t touch them. When they’ve turned a beautiful, golden brown, about two to five minutes, flip them carefully with tongs.
One thing: Eggplant soaks up a lot of oil. That’s why we bread it, and that’s why we want the oil hot. If you need more oil, add it. Also, if between batches, the oil is gone and the breadcrumbs in the pan are starting to burn, take the pan off the heat, let it cool a bit, then wipe it clean-ish with several layers of paper towels. Put it back on the heat, add more oil and proceed.
When the slices are golden brown on both sides, transfer them to a paper towel-covered platter or a flat, paper grocery bag to soak up extra oil.
The sauce: Make your own. Seriously. Jarred sauces are B-A-D bad. And listen to this: You don’t even need a great sauce. You know what I do 90 percent of the time? I puree a can of good, imported Italian plum tomatoes, heat it in a saucepan and season with salt. Done. With no other flavorings, you really taste the tomatoes and eggplant.
The cheeses: Mozzarella, of course. You can slice fresh mozz or get good-quality bricks to shred. And, if you’re partial to those bags of pre-shredded mozzarella? Well, I won’t tell a soul.
And parmesan. Most people (though not all, interestingly) say the dish is named for the cheese and its hometown of Parma. You can do your own research.
Again, you can buy beautiful blocks of imported Parmigiano-Reggiano and grate it yourself, or you can buy tubs of grated or shredded imported or domestic. Just don’t, please, under any circumstances, use that shelf-stable, dusty product in the green, cylindrical cardboard containers. That’s not cheese. That’s Satan’s punishment for the sins of our forebears.
The assembly: Add just enough heated sauce to cover lightly the bottom of a casserole. Make a layer of eggplant, then spread mozzarella liberally but not excessively. Ladle sauce over the whole thing, again, liberally but not excessively. Repeat until you have two or three layers. Sprinkle grated parmesan over the top.
Place in a 350-degree oven for 30 to 45 minutes, until the liquid bubbles and the cheese browns a bit. Or, cover the unbaked dish, refrigerate and bake the next day for up to an hour, until hot.
2 cans (28 ounces each) Italian plum tomatoes
Chicken stock or water, as needed
1/2 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Crushed red pepper flakes
2 pounds eggplants
2 cups flour
3 eggs, lightly beaten with 2 tablespoons water
2 cups breadcrumbs
Oil as needed
3/4 pound mozzarella cheese, grated
2 ounces grated parmesan, or as needed
Pulse tomatoes in a food processor until you have a coarse puree. Bring to a boil in a large saucepan, then reduce heat and simmer to reduce, 15 to 20 minutes. If too thick, add chicken stock or water as needed to adjust consistency. Season with 1/4 teaspoon salt, or more to taste, and black pepper and crushed red pepper to taste.
While tomatoes are simmering, cut eggplant into 1/4- to 1/2-inch slices. Season with salt. Set up your breading assembly line: put flour in one shallow bowl, egg wash in a second and breadcrumbs in a third. Dredge slices in flour, then coat in egg wash and coat with breadcrumbs.
Heat a large skillet over a medium-high flame. When hot, add enough oil to cover bottom of pan by 1/8-inch. Wait 30 seconds to allow oil to come up to temperature, then fry eggplant slices in batches, until golden brown, about two to three minutes per side.
Spray a 13-by-9-inch baking dish with nonstick pan spray; ladle in just enough tomato sauce to cover bottom. Cover tomato sauce with a layer of eggplant slices, then top with a thin layer of mozzarella cheese. Cover with tomato sauce, then repeat process of eggplant, cheese and sauce, creating at least two, maybe three layers. Cover final layer of eggplant with sauce and Parmesan cheese. (You may have leftover sauce.)
Bake in a 350-degree oven until top is brown and bubbly and eggplant is heated through, 20 to 30 minutes. Remove from oven; rest for 10 minutes before cutting and serving.
Yield: 8 servings