This post had so many potential titles–Deep Purple, Heart of Darkness, Purple Monster–all inspired by this week’s recipe of Simple Eggplant Parmesan, and the challenge of photographing dark eggplants. My favorite was from the great American writer Annie Proulx, who once depicted a character’s nocturnal torment as a “descent into an aubergine nightmare.” An aubergine nightmare. How good is that!
On the other hand, not exactly the title to lure people into food blog.
To business. If you have a devoted southern Italian grandmother who makes you Melanzane alla Parmigiana stop reading now. Eggplant Parmesan has long been a favorite, but as an investment in time and effort it’s on a par with reshingling your own roof–you accomplish a Herculean task and feel a deep sense of satisfaction, but in the absence of a southern Italian grandmother, know that it’s going to be awhile until you do that again.*
Which is too bad.
Herewith an alternative that preserves the staggeringly good flavor of Eggplant Parmesan while reducing the dish to its fundamentals–eggplant, basic tomato sauce, two cheeses–without turning it into a meal for the Michelin Man. And no complicated layering, breading or frying. Of course there are the usual fellow travelers–garlic, shallots, fresh herbs, S&P, but you get the picture. This recipe sidesteps the danger of morphing your eggplant into an EVOO sponge by letting it steam lightly, in a covered pan with some safflower oil instead of deep-frying it.
I recommend you make the Simple Tomato Sauce recipe we’ve included–it’s light, uncomplicated and fast–or you can reach for a jar of your own and make the preparation even simpler.
If you use a commercial sauce, opt for for a lighter, marinara style. Eggplant = subtle flavor = easily overwhelmed. Another tip: don’t slice fresh mozzarella until you’re ready to use it. Sliced mozzarella hemorrhages liquid and if it sits before broiling the result will be more Rubbermaid drain cover than molten unctuousness (guess how I know this). Enjoy. Ken
*If you want to take up the gauntlet and do the traditional thing, here’s a great recipe from Gourmandistan.
Simple Eggplant Parmesan
- 1/3 cup safflower oil, as needed
- 2 medium eggplants (about 1-pound each), sliced ¾-inch thick (you should get 12 slices total)
- Kosher salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 1 cup thinly sliced shallots
- 2 tablespoons minced garlic
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- ¼ cup balsamic vinegar
- 2 5-ounce balls fresh mozzarella
- 1½ cups Simple Tomato Sauce (recipe below) or your favorite sauce
- ½ cup grated Parmesan cheese
- ¼ cup chopped fresh herbs (I used a mix of basil and parsley in one version; mint and summer savory on another, because that’s what I had on hand.)
- Heat 2 tablespoons safflower oil in a large heavy-bottomed sauté pan over medium-high heat. Season the eggplant with salt. Add half the eggplant slices to the pan, reduce the heat to medium, cover and cook until golden brown, 5 – 6 minutes . Uncover and flip the eggplant, add a tablespoon or so of safflower oil to the pan and cook on the second side until golden brown, 3 – 4 minutes. If it seems like they’re browning too fast before they get tender, put the cover back on. Transfer to a baking sheet in a single layer and season with ground pepper.
- Wipe out the pan. Add 2 tablespoons of safflower oil to the pan and increase the heat to medium-high. Add the remaining eggplant, lower the heat to medium, cover and cook as above. When the second batch is done, transfer it to the baking sheet in a single layer, wipe out the pan again, and proceed to the next step.
- Add 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil to the pan and reduce the heat to medium-low. Add the shallots and garlic and cook until tender and just starting to color, about 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper and add the oregano and vinegar and cook until the vinegar has reduced and coated the shallots, about 30 seconds. Remove from the heat.
- Preheat the broiler.
- Warm the tomato sauce over low heat. Spread the shallot mixture evenly over the eggplant. Cut each of mozzarella balls into 6 slices about ¼-inch thick. Top each eggplant slice with a piece of mozzarella. Broil 3 – 4 minutes or until the cheese is bubbling. Pay attention – you don’t want the slices to brown faster than 3 minutes or the eggplant won’t have time to heat.
- Put a spoonful of tomato sauce in the center of 4 plates. Arrange 3 eggplant slices over the sauce. Sprinkle with grated cheese and fresh herbs.
Simple Tomato Sauce
Makes a little more than 2 cups
- ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
- ¾ cup onion, diced ¼ inch
- 1 tablespoon minced garlic
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 28 ounces canned plum tomatoes
- ½ teaspoon sugar
- 1 bay leaf
- Heat the oil with the onion and garlic in a small saucepan over medium heat. Cover and cook 10 minutes.
- Remove the cover, season with salt and pepper, add the tomatoes, sugar and bay leaf and cook 35 minutes. Remove the bay leaf and puree to desired consistency. Taste and adjust seasonings.
In my cooking classes the question of whether to salt eggplant always comes up. I don’t salt. There are two main rationales for salting:
- To remove bitterness. In my experience fresh eggplant isn’t bitter. Or perhaps I should say is no longer bitter. I never salted small or Japanese eggplant, and these days large globe eggplants are no longer bitter.
- To remove moisture. Eggplant is a natural natural sponge for oil. Salting might theoretically make sense–salting removes moisture; less moisture equals less sponginess equals less absorption. But in a side by side comparison in my kitchen I could see and taste no difference between the batch I salted and let sit for half an hour and the batch I simply cooked after slicing it. I suspect other factors, like the kind of oil and the temperature of the pan when the eggplant is added might make a difference. I like sautéing eggplant in safflower oil because it has a higher smoking point than extra virgin oil oil. With a hotter pan it’s easier to get a sear than at the lower temperature required when using evoo. Would I salt if I were sautéing eggplant in evoo? To be honest I probably wouldn’t.