Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Eggplant Parmigiana Without Fuss

There are certain dishes that I love but rarely make myself, given the realities of my kitchen. I often feel I’m juggling at a three-ring circus when cooking in my little Manhattan kitchen with its tiny stove and lack of counter space. I engage in a lot of creative rearranging, usually balancing a large cutting board over the sink to create more surface space while negotiating multiple pots on the burners as well as resting on the open oven door. If a dish requires me to have several pans bubbling on the stove AND have the oven preheating at the same time, I’m screwed.

For example, I’ve always loved Eggplant Parmigiana. I think you could convince me to eat just about anything if it were smothered in tomato sauce and blanketed in melted cheese, but I’ve always had a particular fondness for this Italian classic. However, eggplant parm is one of those dishes I’ve never felt compelled to tackle at home, preferring to order it in a good restaurant where their kitchen is presumably bigger than mine. I’ll let a professional with more counter space and a bigger cook top coordinate frying the eggplant and draining it on paper towels while also whipping up a killer tomato sauce, and I assume that a restaurant kitchen doesn’t have to empty their oven of a dozen skillets and cookie sheets every time they want to bake something.

However, I’ve found a scrumptious recipe that I can easily manage in my little kitchen without breaking a sweat. This version of Eggplant Parmagiana comes from Mario Batali in his Molto Italiano cookbook. The beauty of this recipe is that it is lighter than most eggplant parm dishes I’ve had, for the eggplant slices are oven-baked rather than breaded and fried. The flavors are vibrant and clean, for the baked eggplant disks are layered with a lively tomato sauce and slices of fresh mozzarella, while a few slivered fresh basil leaves provide a dash of color as well as a fragrant note. Toasted breadcrumbs on top give a nice crunch, almost making you forget that the eggplant wasn't fried for this version.

Eggplant has a reputation for being high-maintenance. Many recipes ask you to liberally salt the eggplant slices and let them drain in a colander for a good hour or so before proceeding with your recipe. This technique, known as purging, leaches out some of the bitter liquid around the eggplant’s seed pockets. The flesh of a large globe eggplant is like a sponge, capable of soaking up vast quantities of oil during the cooking process, but this salting/purging step helps the eggplant to firm up and not absorb as much oil while it cooks.

However, I find that this pre-salting technique usually isn’t necessary if I’m using smaller eggplants, as they tend to be firmer and less bitter than their larger siblings. Nor do I find it necessary to drain the eggplant according to this method if I’m oven-roasting it before incorporating it into the rest of the recipe. That translates into less prep time and fewer dishes to wash, a particularly appealing prospect when every cooking experience in my kitchen feels like an exercise in clever stage management. It also means I can more quickly get down to the business of eating what I prepared. When that involves an Eggplant Parmigiana as satisfying as this one, you really don’t want to delay your enjoyment a moment longer.

One-Year Ago: Amaretto Truffles

Adapted, barely, from a recipe in Molto Italiano by Mario Batali

I’ve adjusted the quantities so that my version serves two as a main course, or four as appetizer portions. If you have more people at your table, go ahead and double the recipe and bake the eggplant medallions in a larger 9x12 baking dish. You won’t be sorry. Use your favorite marinara sauce, whatever kind you like.  I’ve also provided links to my two favorite tomato sauce recipes here on Kitchen Fiddler.

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large eggplant (about 1-½ pounds)
1-½ cups of your favorite marinara sauce, lightly seasoned with salt and pepper (click here for my Quick Tomato Sauce with Lemon or here for my Perfect Pomodoro)
A handful of fresh basil leaves, stems removed and leaves cut into thin slivers
An 8-ounce ball of fresh mozzarella
¼ cup lightly toasted breadcrumbs

Preheat the oven to 450°. Line a baking sheet with foil and drizzle the olive oil onto it.

Cut each eggplant into ½-inch thick slices. (You will probably end up with 8 to 12 slices, depending on your eggplant.) Arrange them on the oiled baking sheet and season the slices with salt and pepper. Bake for about 13 to 15 minutes, or until the eggplant slices are golden brown. Transfer the slices to a large plate to cool, and lower the oven temperature to 350°.

Place the four largest eggplant slices in the bottom of a 9-inch square baking pan. Spread each with a heaping spoonful of marinara sauce, sprinkle with a few basil slivers and top with a slice of mozzarella cheese. Top with four more slices of eggplant and repeat this layering process until all of the remaining eggplant, sauce, basil and cheese have been used to make these little eggplant towers. Sprinkle the toasted breadcrumbs on top and season with salt and pepper.

Bake the eggplant medallions, uncovered, for about 20 minutes or until the cheese is melted and is starting to turn lightly golden. These can be enjoyed straight out of the oven or served at room temperature. Makes 2 main course servings, or 4 appetizer portions.

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