Eggplant Parmesan (Parmigiana di melanzane), is a true classic Italian dish that has become immensely popular around the world. So much so, it has spawned other versions of "Parmesan"-style dishes that don't really exist in Italy (or at least not under this name), such as chicken Parmesan and veal Parmesan. It is, however, sometimes made with zucchini in place of eggplant in Italy, where it is called Parmigiana di zucchine.
The Italian-American version is usually breaded before frying, but the traditional Italian version is not. As a result, it's not only lighter, faster, and easier to prepare, but you can really taste the rich eggplant flavor. 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.
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
- 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 (or to taste)
- For the Parmigiana:
- 2 small eggs
- 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
- Optional: 1 cup fresh small basil leaves (washed, dried, and coarsely chopped)
- 1 (9-ounce) soft, fresh ball of mozzarella (preferably buffalo mozzarella), torn into pieces
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. Cut off the cap end and then slice the eggplants lengthwise into 1/4-inch (1/2-cm) 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 1 hour so the salt draws out the excess water. (You can also stack the slices in a large colander, with salt sprinkled between each layer, and set in a sink.)
Pat off the excess water and salt from the eggplant slices. Rinse them, then dry again with paper towels, pressing down to dry them thoroughly. Set aside.
If you're concerned about sodium or just don't want to bother, you can skip the salting step (although that's how 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 the onion is softened and translucent, about 5 minutes.
Add the tomato puree. Season to taste with salt (if you've salted 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 any 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, 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 the remaining eggplant.
Assemble the Parmigiana
Preheat the oven to 350 F (180 C). When the tomato sauce is done, transfer 1/3 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, so make sure it has cooled down.
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 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), and then evenly distribute pieces of the mozzarella.
Cover the mozzarella with another layer of eggplant, then some egg-tomato sauce, Parmigiano, basil (if using), mozzarella, and then another layer of eggplant.
Repeat until all of the ingredients are used up. The top layer should be 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.
Serve and enjoy.
Why Is It Called Parmigiana?
In spite of the name, which means "Parma-style Eggplant," this dish originated in southern Naples, not the northern Emilia-Romagna town of Parma where the well-known cheese was first produced. There are a few theories as to the name, but most seem like a stretch. The most believable is that 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.
- If possible, use buffalo mozzarella, which is incredibly tender and far more flavorful than cow's milk mozzarella.
- It is best to let the dish rest for at least 1 hour after cooking; it will become more tender and allows any excess liquid to be absorbed and the flavors to develop (it also tastes even better the next day).
- 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 and saltiness.