Mom and my nemesis
My mom is largely responsible for my love of cooking. A self-proclaimed “hacker” in the kitchen, she is no dainty Martha Stewart type. She prefers a no-frills approach–slapping, heaving, hacking, slathering and flinging. Her recipes are wonderfully warming and satisfying, familiar in the way that when you taste them you know they’ve been made a hundred times by a seasoned hand. She is one of the best, most fearless cooks I know and her eggplant Parmesan is second to none. All in all, the perfect choice for helping me overcome my irrational fear of cooking eggplant.
Eggplant is one of few ingredients I consistently avoid. The handful of times I’ve cooked it, it’s turned out spongy or gummy–like I threw styrofoam packing cubes into an otherwise tasty dish. When I’ve told fellow cooks about this problem, they reassure me with suggestions like, “Oh you need to salt it and let it drain on baking racks.” Or “Have you tried soaking it?”
Though all well-intentioned (albeit counterintuitive) advice, it has only made me more eggplant-averse, since I become intimidated by all the work before the work that’s required to make it taste good. (Oddly enough, I have no problem whatsoever dedicating an entire day to producing a loaf of focaccia or grinding sausage by hand. Apparently, bread and sausage trump vegetable in the labor department as far as I’m concerned.)
So when I called Mom for help, I was thrilled to learn that no soaking or draining was required to make her famous eggplant Parm. In fact, hers doesn’t even get coated in breadcrumbs, just a quick dredge in egg and Parmesan before it’s shallow fried in olive oil and baked in tomato sauce. It’s the least fussy recipe for eggplant Parm I’ve ever seen and it’s also the tastiest, in my opinion.
We started by cutting two-thirds of a very large eggplant into 1/4-inch slices. “Don’t go any thinner than that, Marge,” Mom instructed. She grated about 4 ounces of Parmesan cheese and whisked up two eggs while I sliced. “Damn! I should have gotten paper plates. That’s the easiest way to dredge ‘em,” she said. You’ll notice that shortcuts are a common theme with my mom, and also how I broke the first rule of her eggplant Parm.
About 10 minutes into our adventure, I threw chopped onion, garlic, white wine, basil and pureed tomatoes into a pot to simmer for the sauce. “I usually don’t make the sauce from scratch,” she said, eyeing the bubbling pot on the stove. Overachiever. “I was always rushing when I made this,” she added. “I usually just throw some stewed tomatoes and sauce in there and bake it. It comes together pretty nicely in the oven.”
She forgave my minor indiscretion and we moved on to dredging and frying. Mom heated a heavy-bottomed, nonstick (“because it’s easy to clean”) pan to medium high and poured in enough good-quality olive oil to coat the bottom. She started quickly dredging the eggplant slices in egg and cheese and placing them in the skillet. I had to force her to keep her hand still to get the shot below.
Although this was the part of the process that made me the most nervous, it turned out to be the simplest and probably my favorite. The little eggplant disks are very forgiving, easy enough to flip with a fork and they’re downright delicious all by themselves. I started snacking on the smaller pieces like they were potato chips as I pulled them off the heat.
The only challenge with the frying part of the process is that you never seem to have enough cheese or oil. Just when we thought we’d grated enough Parm for the whole batch, we’d run out and have to grate more. “And they just keep drinking up that oil,” Mom said, glugging in a few more tablespoons before we slid the next batch of eggplant into the pan.
The misbehaving dog on the hunt for Parmesan
Grating extra cheese is an easy task, as long as you don’t have a misbehaving Irish terrier in your midst. If you do, that’s another story. We lost a good 3 ounces of that Parmesan cheese block when we turned our backs for a few seconds and he grabbed it off the counter.
“PADDY!” I thundered. He glanced at me wryly, the hunk of Parmesan lodged in his teeth, and took off down the basement stairs. By the time I had pried it out of his mouth, the outside was coated in a nice combo of slobber and fuzz. Being that we are all family here, I swigged a little wine, lobbed off the outermost layer of the cheese block and then resumed grating.
After all eggplant had been fried (and I’d snacked on several just to be sure they tasted good), Mom started liberally slathering tomato sauce on the bottom of the disposable baking dish.
“Are we going to layer them?” I asked. “I like doing them in just one layer, but I overlap them a little,” she replied. “But you can do whatever you want with this dish. That’s what’s so great about it.”
We topped the fried eggplant with more sauce and a generous sprinkling of cheese. We bagged up what was left and slid it into the freezer.
Forty-five minutes later, Mom, Dad and I sat down for eggplant Parm with a side of pasta–with extra tomato sauce spooned over everything, of course. It was later than we’d planned and the dogs had tired each other out enough that they were both passed out under the table. “Pen’s head is on my foot,” Dad said. Those were the last words over the next several minutes as we shoveled in the first few bites.
“Mmmmm. They almost taste meaty,” I said. “I love eggplant!”
“It seems like you’re going to get over your fear of eggplant Parmesan, thanks to the wine,” Mom said. “Or did I drink all the wine?”
My mama’s Eggplant Parmesan
1 medium eggplant, cut in 1/4-inch slices
Extra virgin olive oil, as needed
2 eggs, beaten
6 ounces Parmesan cheese, grated (reserve about 1 ounce for sprinkling)
1 14-ounce can stewed tomatoes
1 14-ounce can tomato sauce or pureed tomatoes
Dried basil, to taste
Garlic powder, to taste
Method: Preheat the oven to 375F. Make a dredging station by putting the beaten eggs and cheese in separate shallow dishes.
Heat a heavy-bottomed skillet to medium high, and add a thin layer of olive oil. Dredge the eggplant slices in the egg and then the cheese. (You don’t need to season the eggplant because the cheese is already salty, Mom says). Place a few slices in the skillet at a time and fry for about 3-4 minutes per side, until the outside is golden brown. Pile the eggplant on a paper towel-lined plate to drain. Keep dredging and frying in batches, adding more oil to the pan as needed, until they’re done.
Spoon about half the stewed tomatoes and sauce into the bottom of a large baking dish, along with a sprinkling of dried basil and garlic powder to taste. Arrange the eggplant slices on top of the sauce, overlapping them a little like shingles on a roof. Top with the rest of the sauce and another sprinkling of garlic and basil. Top with the rest of the Parmesan cheese. Note: My family is made up of “sauce people”–we like to load up on sauce with our eggplant. You don’t have to use that much, though you can also toss whatever’s leftover with pasta for a starchy side.
Bake the eggplant for 30 to 40 minutes, until everything is hot enough to take off the roof of your mouth and the cheese is brown and bubbling.
Serve a few eggplant slices on each plate and top with extra sauce. This is delicious with pasta and tomato sauce. And if you’re really feeling decadent, Mom recommends frying up a couple of Italian sausages and serving those with the eggplant.