All you eggplant haters, hear me out. We need to talk. I know there’s a cult of you who despise this wondrous, shiny, purple creation, and it makes me sad. And I’ve noticed that it’s never a passive dislike. You rarely say, “Oh, eggplant just isn’t for me.” Your reaction to it is a repulsed, puckered scowl. The stuff usually reserved for when you find surprise poop under your shoe. It’s just not fair.
But I understand. Eggplant is tough to do well. It can be bitter and tasteless. In certain forms, its squishy texture reminds me—eggplant fiend that I am—of slugs. It can be pretty offensive under the wrong circumstances. I worry, though, that because of this, you folks are missing out on the glory of eggplant under the right circumstances. Joe and I recently had this argument with our upstairs neighbor. He’d sworn off eggplant completely; doomed it to his black list of disgusting foods he never wanted to see again.
My immediate response was, “You mean you even hate eggplant Parmesan?” That’s my big question when people say they hate eggplant. And in fact, he’d never had it. That explained a lot. So we invited them down for dinner the following weekend, hell bent on changing his mind.
I whipped up the eggplant Parmesan my mom always made growing up. The eggplant Parm that kept me from paying attention in school when I knew we’d be having it for dinner. It would be all I could think of all day, and when I got home, it was the one meal I wasn’t too lazy to help my mom cook. Helping meant we’d get to eat it sooner—that is, if we weren’t tortured by my dad getting stuck late at work.
I almost looked forward to getting sick as a kid because I’d get to make special requests for dinner. It was always eggplant Parm. Part of its glory may be in the homemade sauce. But I’m sure the obscene amounts of cheese, olive oil, and garlic help, too. The eggplant essentially becomes a vehicle for every ingredient that makes Italian cooking beautiful. Its spongy consistency soaks up flavors like no other Parmesan base can. Forget veal or shrimp or chicken. There’s a magic in eggplant Parmesan that can’t be touched. That’s why I worry for everyone who’s been blindly ruling it out. You’re just depriving yourself from a certain happiness that can only come from eggplant Parm.
The dinner party (i.e., eggplant intervention) went well. He ate it, despite his reservations, and didn’t make a single offensive face. He even asked to bring home leftovers. That has to be a good sign, right?
3 small eggplant, thinly sliced into discs
2 cups Italian breadcrumbs*
3 tablespoons olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
Approx. 3 cups tomato sauce*
½ cup mozzarella, thinly sliced
½ cup Caciotta del Lazio cheese (or an additional ½ c mozzarella), thinly sliced
¼ cup shredded Parmesan cheese
½ stale baguette
1 cup Parmesan cheese
1 teaspoon dried parsley
salt and pepper to taste
8 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
½ yellow onion, finely chopped
¼ cup olive oil
1 24-ounce jar or can fresh tomato puree
1 teaspoon dried oregano
salt and pepper to taste
Make the breadcrumbs:
Slice the baguette into pieces small enough to fit in a food processor. Chop until they turn into fine breadcrumbs. Transfer to a medium bowl and season with Parmesan cheese, parsley, salt, and pepper.
You can skip this step and just use Italian seasoned breadcrumbs from the supermarket. No one will judge you. And no one has to know if you worry they will judge you.
Prepare the eggplants:
Preheat your oven to 375 degrees F.
Beat the eggs in a medium bowl, adding a few tablespoons of water to thin them.
Coat each eggplant slice in egg, making sure both sides are fully covered. Transfer to the breadcrumb bowl. Coat each slice in breadcrumbs then transfer to a clean plate.
Spread the breaded eggplant slices on a baking sheet and generously drizzle with about 3 tablespoons of olive oil. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until slightly golden. Leave the oven on.
Make the sauce:
Eggplant Parmesan typically uses fried eggplant. Since ours are baked, we’re making a slightly oilier-than-usual sauce to balance out the flavors.
Prepare the sauce while the eggplants are baking. In a medium saucepan, simmer the garlic, onions, and olive oil over medium heat until the garlic and onions begin to soften. Add tomato puree, lower the heat, and bring to a simmer. Add salt, pepper, and oregano to taste.
Assemble the glorious mess:
Line the bottom of a 9×9 or similar-size baking dish with a single layer of eggplant slices. You want everything to fit snugly in the pan, so choose a pan that’s a bit smaller than you’d think is necessary. 9×9 worked well for this recipe.
Cover the eggplants with a few ladles of sauce to fully coat. Top generously with mozzarella slices. Add another layer of eggplant, a new coat of sauce, and this time, a layer of Caciotta del Lazio cheese (or mozzarella, if you don’t have Caciotta). Continue building layers of eggplant, sauce, and cheese until you run out of ingredients or reach the top of the pan. The top layer should be eggplant covered in sauce. Finish with a generous sprinkling of Parmesan cheese to cover the whole thing.
Bake until the Parmesan cheese top is slightly golden. Everything is already cooked when it goes in the oven so baking times can vary. 30 to 45 minutes is a good amount of time for everything to come together.