Sunday Supper: Eggplant Parmesan

I'm back.  And out with a new series.  By this point, you all are experts in all the basic techniques necessary to make top-shelf Italian delights.  So welcome everyone to The Next Level: SUNDAY SUPPERS.  Invite a friend, invite ten.  Just invite someone, cook for them, and eat and talk together for the next few hours.

We're gonna start with a venerable dish that has its origins squarely in Vesuvian soil.  Parmigiana di melanzane.  That is, eggplant parmesan. 

This past March, between checking out Pompeii and taking the ferry over to Capri, I was lucky enough to do some high-level "research" into the culinary traditions of the province of Campania.  Located at the shin of Italy, and sitting at the base of Mount Vesuvius, the region is home to fertile volcanic soil and hordes of milk-producing water buffaloes.  The area is flecked with fragrant lemon trees (which make delicious limoncello) and chains of tomato vines that locals refer to as pomodorini.  They swear by these pomodorini.  They claim that the soil of Mt. Vesuvius makes these the best tomatoes in Italy.  I think I have to agree.  I've been lucky to see--and eat--a lot of Italy.  But nowhere did I eat better than in the Bay of Naples.  Everything was familiar, as though the entire area was one big American-Italian restaurant, just the best one you've ever been to.  Exhibit A:

 Artful.

Artful.

This familiarity--and the scarlet tinge of the region's cuisine--isn't really surprising, actually.  Italy's third largest city, Naples, resides in Campania.  The city is an ancient one, originally settled by Greeks as their "New City" in the seventh-century BC.  Then the Romans took it.  After the fall of Rome, the city passed between the Great Houses of Europe, until for a long time it was under Spanish dominion.   Remember the Columbian Exchange?  That big thing which brought syphilis to the Old World and smallpox to the New World?  Well, among the many flora and fauna that jumped the Atlantic, tomatoes passed to the Old World, and Naples, a major Spanish port at the time, was ground zero for the new Nightshade.  Along with mozzarella cheese--that's another show--the tomato came to be the rock upon which the region could formulate its delicious regional cuisine, circa the late 1500s.  The rich volcanic soil and hot sun was ideal for the fruit, and the rest is...well, you know how it goes.  When the new fruit was paired with another Old-World nightshade, the Eggplant, the result was a slam dunk.  Sweet and sunny, meaty and savory, a little bit Old World, and a little bit New World, Eggplant Parm was like a less-cheesy Donnie and Marie song.

Despite the Neapolitan promise of a new, fresh start--perhaps best symbolized by Eggplant Parm--Campania had its ups and downs.  Volcanic eruptions.  Plague.  Poverty.  When Italy was unified in 1861, the region was finally joined politically with its neighbors to the North.  Due to economic adjustment from a monarchy to a national republic, however, Campania was economically devastated.  As the formerly-Royal Coffers of Campania were emptied and sent up to the new capital in Turin, economic recession led to mass emigration to places across the Atlantic, like Argentina and the United States. 

These huddled masses did not travel empty-handed.  Nor were they short of wealth.  They brought their olive oil, sausages, meatballs, mozzarella, and of course, their tomatoes, with them.  And fast forward a hundred years, these red and cheesy foods are synonymous with Italy for many Americans.  Amazing story, right?  No wonder Campania feels so much like home.

Unfortunately, in the US, renditions of Neapolitan hits often get heavy under the weight of all that cheese and disastrously fried exteriors.  As too many of you may know, this gets nasty real quick.  None of these dishes suffer so mightily as Eggplant Parmesan.  Soggy, greasy disks of bitter pulp, topped with an uninspiring and watery tomato sauce, and then festooned with mounds of crappy, separated cheese.  *Shudder.*  "Extra" sure doesn't always mean "better."

For this first Sunday Supper together, let us invoke the poster on the kitchen wall of Bill Clinton's campaign headquarters: "It's the ingredients, stupid."

Eggplant Parmesan

  • 3 Italian Eggplants
  • One batch marinara sauce
  • 1 pound fresh mozzarella
  • 1 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
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Get some big nice Italian eggplants, with solid purple/black skin and firm flesh.  Don't confuse these with the smaller, light-purple or speckled Asian varieties.  First step to getting them in our stomachs is getting as much skin off your eggplants with a peeler.  Then, bust out a mandolin.  No, you don't need to sing to the sauce.  A mandolin is a thin, razor-sharp blade embedded in a sheet of plastic or wood.  You slide your piece of produce over the blade, and it makes beautiful, thin slices of product.  You can get cheap ones at various places.  If you don't have one, can't find one, or are afraid of Macgyvering one, don't worry about it: just be sure to slice your eggplants lengthwise about a quarter-inch thick.

Start layering your slices in a colander.  After one layer, sprinkle the top with 1/2 tablespoon of kosher salt.  Stack up another layer.  Repeat until you're done.  Place a plate over top of the whole mass, and weigh it down with some cans.  Wait about an hour.  As you wait, you can read about why you have to do this part:

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The best way to capture the lusciousness of eggplant is long cooking in oil, as is favored in dishes such as Baba Ghannoush.  Unlike the Middle-Eastern spread, which is made from slow-roasted and pulverized eggplant, the wrinkle here is that we want to preserve some of the fruit's internal structure, such that we get a nice solid set of layers.  But the night is dark and full of terrors.  Eggplants are really spongy.  If we drive water away without plugging the resulting cavities, say by putting raw eggplant in the oil without any processing, hot oil will simply rush in to fill the vacuum left by water boiling away, resulting in an spongy oily mess.  We will need to suck out some of the water, then collapse the structures to stymie the influx of oil.  There are a couple ways to do this: either microwave or the salt+pressure method.  Microwaves cause the internal water to boil away, by exciting the water molecules until the evaporate.  Salt and pressure will cause water to seep out of the eggplant's cells in response to an osmotic gradient.  Chemically, the result is the same, namely, that water will be gone, leaving the eggplant's superstructure firmly in place. 

One may certainly choose to go with the micro-route, but the salting has an additional favorable side effect.  As a member of the Nightshade family, modern eggplants are ancestrally linked to fruits with bitter compounds in their flesh.  Generations of selective breeding of eggplants (and tomatoes, for that matter) has largely driven the bitterness quotient down.  Nevertheless, the salting procedure cuts down on any residual perception of bitterness when all is said and done.  So I went with that.  But give micro a try too and see how that goes.

By now, the eggplants have dribbled out a greyish liquid.  Press hard on the top of the layers a few more times, then start to unfurl the layers.  Wrap each leaflet in a towel, press down to collapse those little vacant cavities, and unwrap.  As you do this, get a pan heating up to medium/medium-high heat with about a quarter-inch of olive oil in it.  Flick a *small* amount of water in the oil.  If it bubbles rapidly, it's good to go.  Gently place a few leaves in the oil and let them cook away until brown on one side, maybe four minutes.  Flip:

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Repeat until you have a big pile of golden eggplant sheets.  I know some of you are confused by the fact that these eggplant pieces are not breaded.  Kind of unusual, right?  Most of the US versions do a dry-wet-dry dredge of the eggplant, similar to the procedure one would take to fry a chicken breast in preparation for Chicken Parm.  But in Italy, it doesn't seem to be common procedure, and frankly, I can see why.  The breading complicates the cooking of the eggplant, lending itself to sogginess and stodginess.  Instead, this paired-down approach allows for more even cooking of the eggplant, and a cleaner taste and texture in the long-term.  So we're going this route.

As you're finishing that up, get a batch of marinara sauce going.  May I suggest you follow this recipe?  Instead of the bottle of passata, I'd recommend using a 28-oz can of whole peeled Italian tomatoes.  Just break them up a little with your hand, and everything will work out just fine.

That'll get you right here.  Reduce the sauce a little bit longer than you normally would, by about a third, until it starts to get a little darker red, pasty, and concentrated.  Water is the enemy!

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Now, we layer, like a gluten-free lasagna.  Get a 9x13 inch pan and lightly oil the bottom.  Start by spreading down a thin layer of marinara.  Then, a layer of eggplant sheets, probably about a third to a quarter of the total.  Then, bust out that fresh mozzarella.  Pinch off little crumbles and spread across the surface of the eggplant.  Use about a similar fraction of the total. 

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Spread the top with a similar fraction of the marinara.  And then sprinkle with similar fraction of the grated Parmesan.  Repeat until it's all gone.  And you'll get this prize:

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Stuff that baby in a 375 degree oven for about 30 minutes.  Watch it carefully!  Remove it when the top gets golden brown, and the edges and corners start to get dark brown and delicious.

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You can serve this with pasta, or honestly, just a loaf of crusty bread.  It's good hot or room temperature, as an appetizer or entree, or as breakfast, if you're really eager.

Eggplant parm, like other dishes that can be considered within the cannon of cucina povera, is thus a dish that speaks intimately to the Italian AND Italian-American experiences.  Born of hard times, economic turmoil, and global dislocation, the dish is nevertheless an affirmation and celebration of the gifts one does have: bounty, family, and hearth.  With a little time and attention, the dish can make anywhere feel like home, whether sitting in your kitchen, or alone somewhere across the Atlantic, tempest-tost and yearning to breathe free.

Simple ingredients: they get the job done.  We just need to let them sing.