I’m not Italian (I’m a WASP from Colorado). To me gravy is what you put on potatoes (not pasta). And when it comes right down to it I don’t really even like eggplant that much (like okra it seems there are more bad preparations than good). So it is hard to explain my recent obsession with Eggplant Parmesan. I seriously crave it and need a regular fix. It all began about a year ago when my Italian American friend Rosemary Bitetti came over with her daughter Amanda Puck to educate me about her technique. Like many modern day prophets she sat in her chair, drank vodka, wagged her finger a lot, and told me and Amanda exactly what to do. The end product was “perfecto” and after a couple more batches on my own I think I have it down.
A few key takeaways – slice your eggplant thin – about a quarter inch works best. A 50/50 mixture of Fontina and Mozzarella cheese gives the final product a more complex flavor and a 50/50 mixture of Italian and Panko breadcrumbs delivers the most crisp AND flavorful coating. Fry the breaded eggplant pieces quickly over a high heat so they don’t absorb too much oil. When I am done frying I put all the slices on baking sheets in a hot oven to dry them out just a bit more. And finally, Eggplant Parm is all about the GRAVY. Adapting a recipe from the Little Owl in NYC – I now have a go to Marinara which is super versatile. I like to top mine with thin slices of Buffalo Mozzarella a la a great Margarita Pizza. The recipe for the eggplant and the sauce follow below. Give them a spin and report back. And if you know any old Italian ladies have them give it a taste – just don’t tell them the recipe comes from a gay yuppie in Chicago.
Perfect Eggplant Parmesan
For the Marinara Sauce:
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large chopped onion
8 garlic cloves, chopped
1/3 cup (packed) fresh basil leaves
2 teaspoons fennel seeds
2 28-ounce cans whole peeled tomatoes*
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
For the Eggplant Parm:
2-3 eggplants (1 1/2 pounds total), cut into 1/4-inch rounds
Coarse salt and pepper
1 cup Italian Style dried breadcrumbs
1 cup Panko Japanese Style dried breadcrumbs
1/2 cup grated Parmesan Reggiano
1 cup all-purpose flour
4 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 tablespoon Whole Milk
1 cup vegetable oil
6 oz Mozzarella Cheese – Shredded
6 oz Fontina Cheese Shredded
3 4 oz Ovaline Buffalo Mozzarella – each sliced into 4 pieces
Add olive oil to a large straight sided skillet over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add the onion, garlic, basil, and fennel seeds. Lower the heat, sauté until onion begins to brown, about 5 minutes. Add all tomatoes with juices. Bring to boil, scraping up browned bits. Reduce heat to low, cover with lid slightly ajar, and simmer, stirring occasionally, about 30 minutes. Remove from heat, let the sauce come to room temperature, and puree until almost smooth with an immersion blender, standard blender or food processor. Add the balsamic vinegar and season to taste with salt and pepper. Sauce can be made up to one day ahead and refrigerated.
In a colander, toss eggplant with 2 teaspoons salt. Let stand 30 minutes. Arrange slices in a single layer on a dish towel and roll up tightly to extract excess water. Place aside. In a shallow dish, combine breadcrumbs and parmesan cheese; season with salt and pepper. Put flour in one shallow dish and eggs mixed with milk in another. Coat eggplant in flour, shaking off excess. Dip in egg, letting excess drip off. Coat with breadcrumbs and place on a baking sheet fitted with a wire rack. Let them rest for 30 mins.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. In a large straight-sided skillet, heat oil over medium-high until a few breadcrumbs sizzle when added. In batches, fry eggplant until golden brown and tender, 2 to 3 minutes per side. Drain on a paper-towel-lined baking sheet. If your oil starts to look dirty, or overly filled with burnt crumbs, let it cool and switch out for fresh oil. Place the cookie sheets in the oven and crisp for about 15 minutes, checking consistently to make sure they don’t burn. Remove from oven and let cool completely.
Grease a 9-by-13-inch baking dish with non-stick cooking spray. In a large bowl mix the Fontina and Mozzarella Cheese until well combined. Spread a thin layer of the tomato sauce on the bottom of the baling dish, top with 1/3 of the eggplant (overlapping slices slightly), 1/3 of the remaining sauce, and half the shredded cheese mixture. Repeat. Cover with the the remaining eggplant slices, sauce, and fresh Mozzarella slices. Cover with Aluminum Foil which has been coated with non-stick cooking spray and bake for 30 minutes. Remove foil and bake an additional 10 to 15 minutes or until bubbly. Let cool for 15 minutes, cut and serve.
* canned San Marzano Tomatoes from Italy make a huge flavor difference and are available at most better grocery stores and specialty food markets like Whole Foods.