Ever so abruptly, the warmest autumn here in 200 years has ended. Yesterday brought an early morning downpour and steady rain for most of the day. And we can expect to see more of the same for the next week or so. This means that the olive harvest is on hold until we have a brighter weather window. In the meantime, we’re stowing our summer gear, breaking out our raincoats and umbrellas and retreating to the kitchen.
We can still find the very last of the local eggplant crop in the market, though, along with pomodori a pendula, those particularly Pugliese tomatoes that are meant to be hung in a cool place all winter long for use whenever a hint of summer’s warmth is required. Since we’re effectively confined to quarters, we thought we’d mourn for summer weather by making parmigiana di melanzane, the sunniest dish we know that also serves to turn up the heat.
Lucky for me, a visiting friend had just participated in a one-on-one cooking class with Rosanna Capriati, a local friend and master of cucina casareccia or homestyle cooking here. It was a perfect opportunity to draw upon her experience to make some subtle changes in my own parmigiana technique. The result? Just a few small steps and an ingredient tweak or two made for a parmigiana that had us sneaking leftovers right out of the refrigerated pan the next morning.
Eggplant Parmesan or parmigiana di melanzane in Italian, is one of the classic preparations of southern Italy. It is particularly associated with the cooking of Naples, but it is popular throughout the regions of Campania, Puglia, Calabria and Sicily, too. La parmigiana is a casserole dish made by slicing eggplant thinly and frying it in olive oil. Some cooks dip the eggplant slices in a beaten egg before frying, some flour it first and fry it, while others more concerned with making the dish light, will bake or grill the eggplant slices. The eggplant is layered successively in a baking casserole with tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese, parmigiano cheese, basil, and (sometimes) hard-boiled egg slices. Other cooks omit the hard-boiled egg but add slivered mortadella or tiny polpettine (meatballs) that have been cooked in the tomato sauce.
I had always used a minimalist approach, lightly frying the eggplant slices and adding little more to the layering process than tomato sauce, mozzarella and freshly grated parmigiano. But under Rosanna’s tutelage, a new parmigiana has emerged: deeply flavorful, with no bitter edge and all of the oozing warmth you’d expect. The key points? Always make time to drain the bitterness from each slice of eggplant; use an abundant amount of extra virgin olive oil when frying each eggplant piece (you can reuse the oil for future frying projects); add the mortadella if you can find a great source; cover the parmigiana during its initial baking, uncovering for the last 10-15 minutes; and don’t serve it piping hot.
We also learned that in southern Italy, la parmigiana is not limited exclusively to eggplant. It can be made with zucchini or artichokes, both of which are sliced and fried just like the eggplant, although the artichokes require cleaning and trimming in the usual way. We can’t wait to branch out.
In preparation for making my new and improved parmigiana, I braved the rain and stopped at our local alimentare (neighborhood food store). While stocking up on mortadella, mozzarella and parmigiano, a neighbor stood next to me and asked what I was making. This is, of course, normal here. Everyone talks about what they made or ate for lunch, how it was made, where they found the seasonal ingredients and how their mammas make it best. My neighbor was no exception. She shared that some people think it’s better to grill or roast the eggplant to reduce the fat in parmigiana, but her disapproval of parmigiana “lite” was obvious. She is, however, a polpettine woman and urged me to add them for a truly special parmigiana. Mortadella, she said, is when hai fretta (you’re in a hurry). She parted by sharing her lunchtime menu including a few tips for choosing the best eggplant and was out the door with her umbrella aloft, wishing me a cheery “Buon pranzo!” (“Have a good lunch!”). And it was.
Parmigiana di Melanzane—Eggplant Parmesan
2 medium or 3 small eggplants
Kosher or sea salt
1 cup milk
Extra virgin olive oil
8 oz. mozzarella or scamorza (or two medium-sized balls); see Cooks’ Notes below
¼ lb. very thinly sliced Italian mortadella
¾ cup freshly grated parmigiano
Fresh basil leaves
Make the tomato sauce and leave to cool to room temperature. Using extra virgin olive oil, coat the bottom and sides of a 9” x 13” porcelain or terracotta casserole dish. We have used those cheesy aluminum lasagna pans in a moment of crisis, but they can detract from the presentation at serving time.
Slice the eggplants lengthwise into 1/4-inch slices. Lay each slice on paper towels or clean cotton kitchen towels, salt generously and let sit for at least half an hour (an hour is best). The salt, leaving a light brown liquid behind, will draw out their bitter juices.
Shred the mozzarella or scamorza. Stack the thin mortadella slices on top of one another and chop into small dice.
Dip each eggplant slice into a shallow bowl of milk to further expel the bitter eggplant juices and press all of the liquid out of each slice by applying pressure with paper towels. Reserve the slices until you’re ready to fry.
In a small, high-sided skillet, heat a quantity of olive oil over medium to medium-high heat to a depth of not less than ½ inch. The olive oil will start to crackle and pop, but it shouldn’t smoke. Carefully place two or three slices of eggplant at a time (no more than can fit in a single layer) in the hot oil; it will bubble vigorously. Keeping an eye on things, let the eggplant cook in the oil until golden on the bottom side, then flip each piece over to fry the other side using metal kitchen tongs. This will take 4-5 minutes.
Place the fried eggplant slices on absorbent paper to drain (I use the inside of clean, Kraft paper shopping bags cut into flat pieces of paper). Repeat the process until all of the eggplant has been fried. Save the olive oil you used to fry the eggplant by straining out any particles and storing in a jar in a cool place. It’s great for subsequent frying projects.
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
With all of the parmigiana ingredients assembled, begin to put the dish together. Place a ladleful of tomato sauce on the bottom of the casserole dish. Add a layer of eggplant pieces, being careful not to overlap. Some space between the eggplant slices is okay, too. Dot the tops of each eggplant slice with more tomato sauce, spreading the sauce to cover the eggplant slices. Scatter 1/3 of the shredded mozzarella or scamorza and 1/3 of the mortadella over the top, then finish with a generous sprinkling of parmigiano. Add a few fresh basil leaves in each layer if you have them.
Repeat with another layer of eggplant, sauce, mozzarella or scamorza, mortadella, parmigiano and basil two more times. Finish with a final layer of eggplant (select your most attractive pieces for this top layer), covered with tomato sauce and parmigiano. Cover the dish with aluminum foil. Slide it into the preheated oven and bake for about 35 minutes. Remove the aluminum foil and continue cooking for another 10 to 15 minutes until the top is bubbling and golden.
La parmigiana is best eaten warm, not piping hot, so give it a chance to cool down and settle when it comes out of the oven—a minimum of 15 minutes.
Makes 8 servings, but good luck keeping any around for leftovers. It will disappear in the night.
Cooks’ Notes: Use fresh mozzarella that is sold in containers where it has been suspended in its watery bath. Take the mozzarella out of the water, pat it dry, and let it rest in the refrigerator for a day before you use it. Don’t use that nasty, rubbery, yellow stuff they call mozzarella sold shrink-wrapped in plastic. If you can’t find fresh mozzarella, go to a good Italian deli and get scamorza, which melts beautifully.