Eggplant Parmesan (Parmigiana di melanzane), is a truly classic Italian dish that has become immensely popular around the world, even spawning other versions of "Parmesan"-style dishes that don't really exist in Italy (or at least not under this name), such as Chicken Parmesan, Veal Parmesan, etc. It is, however, sometimes made with zucchini in place of eggplant in Italy: Parmigiana di zucchine.
In spite of the name, which means "Parma-style Eggplant," it originates in Naples, not the Emilia-Romagna town of Parma. Presumably, it refers to the use of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese in the dish, together with the more typically Neapolitan mozzarella cheese. Use the freshest and most flavorful eggplants you can find, though this dish will still be fantastic with winter eggplant, and use buffalo mozzarella, if possible, which is incredibly tender and far more flavorful than cow's milk mozzarella.
The Italian-American version is usually breaded before frying, but the traditional Italian version is not. As a result, it's not only lighter and faster and easier to prepare, but you can really taste the rich eggplant flavor — it's not masked by breading or too much rubbery cheese. If you are a fan of eggplant, then you may prefer this recipe. If you want to make it even lighter, you could grill or bake the eggplant slices instead of frying them.
While eggplant parmesan is usually served over pasta (often spaghetti) in the U.S., that's not the tradition in Italy. However, the sauce made with this dish tastes absolutely wonderful over pasta, and the pasta helps to cut the richness/saltiness so that the balance is just perfect.
It is best to let the dish rest for at least an hour after cooking; it will become more tender and allows excess liquid to absorb and the flavors to develop (it also tastes even better the next day). This is an incredibly comforting dish that makes a hearty side (contorno) or a satisfying meatless/vegetarian main, together with a salad and some crusty Italian bread. Serve with a full-bodied Merlot or Chianti.
- For the Eggplant:
- 2 1/2 pounds eggplant (about 2 to 3 medium eggplants)
- 1 teaspoon coarse salt (to taste)
- 1 cup vegetable oil (or enough needed for frying)
- For the Tomato Sauce:
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 clove garlic (finely minced)
- 1 small onion (finely chopped)
- 2 cups tomato puree (passata di Pomodoro)
- 1/8 teaspoon fine salt (to taste)
- For the Parmigiana:
- 2 small eggs
- 1/2 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano (freshly grated)
- 1 (9-ounce) ball mozzarella (fresh, soft; preferably buffalo mozzarella)
- Optional: 1 cup fresh small basil leaves (washed, dried, and coarsely chopped)
Note: while there are multiple steps to this recipe, the dish is broken down into workable categories to help you better plan for preparation and assembly.
Prepare the Eggplant
Gather the ingredients.
Wash and dry the eggplants. Slice off the cap end and then slice the eggplants lengthwise into 1/4-inch (1/2-centimeter) thick slices.
Arrange the slices on large trays or baking sheets lined with several layers of paper towels, and sprinkle them lightly with coarse salt on both sides. Set aside for 30 minutes to one hour so the salt draws out the excess water. (You can also stack the slices in a large colander, set in a sink, with salt sprinkled between each layer.)
Pat excess water and salt off of the eggplant slices. Rinse them, then dry again with paper towels, pressing down to dry them thoroughly. Set aside.
If you're concerned about fat or sodium or just don't want to bother, you can skip the salting step -- but that's the way it's done in Italy. Some Italians say that salting them is to "draw out bitterness," but it's really mainly to draw out excess water. Salting them, according to cooking science great Harold McGee, has the added virtue of making the eggplant absorb less oil during frying.
Make the Tomato Sauce
Gather the ingredients.
In a medium pot, heat the olive oil with the minced garlic and chopped onion.
Sauté over medium heat until onion is softened and translucent, about 5 minutes.
Add the tomato puree. Season to taste with salt (if you're salting the eggplant, go easy on the salt in the sauce, or omit it completely). Cover and simmer over low heat for 15 to 20 minutes, until the sauce is flavorful and slightly thickened.
Fry the Eggplants
In a large skillet, heat about 1/4-inch of vegetable oil over medium heat. Give the eggplant slices a final pat with paper towels to remove excess water that may inhibit browning and cause oil splatter.
Fry the eggplant slices, 2 or 3 at a time, in the hot oil until well browned on each side, about 3 to 5 minutes.
As the eggplant slices are removed from the oil, let them drain on a paper towel-lined plate or tray. Adjust the burner temperature and oil level as you fry to keep them constant as you fry the remaining eggplant.
Assemble the Parmigiana
Preheat the oven to 350 F (180 C). When the tomato sauce is done, transfer one-third of the sauce to a small mixing bowl and the remainder to a large mixing bowl.
Let the tomato sauce cool to room temperature, then add the eggs to the larger bowl of sauce and mix well to combine. If the sauce is too hot, you'll cook the eggs.
Cover the bottom of a small 8- by 11-inch rectangular baking dish with a thin layer of the eggless tomato sauce, then add a horizontal layer of fried eggplant slices (use your biggest slices for this first layer; they can overlap a bit).
Cover the eggplants with a layer of egg-tomato sauce, then a generous sprinkling of grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, a sprinkling of chopped basil (if using), then pieces of mozzarella distributed evenly.
Cover the mozzarella with another layer of eggplant, then egg-tomato sauce, Parmigiano, basil, mozzarella, and another layer of eggplant.
Repeat until ingredients are used up. The top layer should be a layer of the eggless tomato sauce, topped with a final sprinkling of grated Parmigiano (if you prefer a cheesier topping, sprinkle some mozzarella pieces on top as well).
Bake for 30 minutes, until the cheese on top is melted and golden brown. For the best results, let it sit for an hour, then serve and enjoy!