I thought I knew how to make eggplant Parmesan (or ParmiGIANa if you're feeling especially Italian). Eggplant, a little breading, sauce, cheese – what can go wrong with that?
Then I met Chiara Lima. She's the bubbly Italian woman who taught the best way to make this traditional Italian favorite at Mamma Agata's Italian cooking class I recently took in Ravello, Italy.
Mamma Agata has dazzled celebrities with her cooking for years. It's Chiara who marketed her fantastic recipes by putting them into their latest cookbook, "Simple and Genuine" and also leads the day-long cooking classes.
The mother and daughter are a force to be reckoned with in the kitchen. Mamma Agata cooks furiously while Chiara explains what she's doing, prepares the next step in the recipe. It’s the definition of a tag team.
My whirlwind experience began with Chiara helping me realize the mistakes I make when cooking with eggplant. For example, I had no idea what to look for when choosing one of these plump, purple veggies. Those huge, smooth ones on sale at Kroger for a buck looked just fine to me, but the skinny Japanese eggplants actually work best.
I also forget to salt the eggplant. It removes the moisture, makes it less bitter and adds crispness - something my former eggplant parm often lacked.
And bread crumbs? Wrong again! The secret to Mamma Agata’s light and crispy slices of eggplant is a coating of 00 farina flour before frying.
To those of you who have languished in the mushy eggplant darkness, I invite you to try Mamma Agata's Parmigiana di Melanzane recipe and dare you not to fall in love. Oh, and a couple of bottles of wine like the heavenly concoction produced by Chiara's husband, Gennaro, wouldn't hurt.
Parmigiana di Melanzane (from Mamma Agata’s ‘Simple and Genuine’ Cook Book)
8 eggplants (long, thin and firm, such as Japanese eggplants)
Mamma Agata’s Secrets:
The type of eggplant that Mamma Agata uses is very important in this recipe. The eggplant needs to be long, thin and firm; Japanese eggplants work well. Ultimately, the shape, firmness and (low) water content is critical to the success of a good Eggplant Parmigiana. Less water in the eggplant means more flavor in your dish and not soggy eggplant Parmigiana!
Buy fresh mozzarella cheese (in water). Two days before making your eggplant Parmigiana, remove the cheese from the water and place in a covered bowl in the refrigerator to dry out. Otherwise, all of the water contained in the mozzarella will leak into your eggplant and you will have a soggy eggplant Parmigiana.
Preparation of the eggplant:
Wash the eggplant and remove the top and end of each eggplant. Use a vegetable peeler to peel the skin of the eggplant lengthwise (i.e. along the length of the eggplant) in stripes, like a zebra, keeping some of the skin on the eggplant to preserve the essential vitamins and flavor of the eggplant.
Once the eggplant is peeled, slice it lengthwise into long pieces about 1/2 inch thick. Do not slice too thin, as it will reduce in size during cooking.
Layer the eggplant slices around the edge of a colander/strainer; sprinkle each slice of eggplant with a pinch of sea salt. Allow the salted eggplant to sit for thirty minutes, to assist in draining out excess water and removing the bitter taste from the eggplant.
After thirty minutes, gently squeeze out excess water from the eggplant slices, 3-4 slices of eggplant at a time, starting from the top of the slices to the bottom. Do not rinse off the salt, as eggplants are like sponges and will absorb the water.
Place the flour on a plate. Dip each slice of eggplant into the flour to cover on both sides. Work quickly, as you do not want the eggplant to absorb too much flour or they will become too soggy to fry.
Frying the eggplant:
Using a deep frying pan, pour in at least a quart of oil, leaving one inch from the top. Do not overfill the frying pan with ingredients. The oil should be very hot, at least 374 degrees Fahrenheit.
Test to see if the oil is hot enough by placing a small potion of the ingredients in the oil. They should float to the top and start to bubble. Seed oils are the best for frying because they have a high burning point. Peanut and vegetable oils are great.
Fry the eggplant slices until they are golden brown. Remove them from the oil and place them onto a paper towel to absorb any excess oil.
Preparing the eggplant Parmigiana:
Pre-heat the oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit. Gather the ingredients, including the tomato sauce, mozzarella and provolone cheeses, grated Parmigiano cheese, and slices of eggplant.
Now, begin to layer your eggplant Parmigiana in a baking dish as follows:
Tomato sauce (use SPARINGLY – too much will make it soggy)
Repeat this process twice, creating three layers in total. The top layer may be higher than the baking dish when it is ready for the oven.
NOTE: The third layer is the top layer and should only include Mamma Agata’s Tomato Sauce and Parmigiano cheese, without mozzarella and provolone cheese. Also, place a cookie sheet or aluminum foil on the rack below your baking dish, as this dish tends to leak out or spill over when baking.
Bake the eggplant Parmigiana in the pre-heated oven for about one hour. After one hour, turn off the heat in the oven, leaving the dish in there for an additional ten minutes with the oven door slightly open. Then, remove the Eggplant from the oven and let it sit at room temperature for at least 40 minutes before serving.
Mamma Agata’s Tomato Sauce
1 quart of vine-ripened Roma tomatoes (pureed)
Add the olive oil, garlic and basil to a large saucepan. NOTE: Do this at the same time and do NOT heat the oil first.
Heat the ingredients over a high flame to release the natural oils contained in the fresh garlic, enhancing the flavors of the tomato sauce. Be careful not to allowe the garlic to burn or smoke. The garlic and oil should be on high flame for one to two minutes.
When the temperature of the oil begins to rise, add the tomato puree and fresh vine-ripened cherry tomatoes to the pan.
Cook the sauce, first over a high flame just until the sauce begins to boil. Then, lower the flame to simmer the sauce for a total of thirty minutes (including the time it took to bring it to a boil.)
Do you have a special method for making eggplant parm, or think your recipe is better? We want in on that. Show off your expertise in the comments below and we may feature your tip in an upcoming feature.