My mother hated eggplant. It was more than a simple dislike, she hated it with a passion. She said it was slimy and felt horrible in her mouth, and even if it came up in casual conversation, she would cringe and gag. I don’t know where this personal vendetta came from, but not a single eggplant ever crossed the threshold of our family home. As a child with a healthy imagination, I pictured something that looked like a big slimy oozing egg. I could not imagine how anyone in their right mind could let this evil food pass their lips.
Then, I grew up, got married and had a family of my own. One day after a trip to the grocery store, my husband brought home a container of Eggplant Parmigiana. This luscious, cheesy, tomato sauce dish looked nothing like my long-held image of the slimy egg thing. After one bite, I was hooked and thus began my love affair with the beautiful purple fruit. Sorry, Mom.
Why the name eggplant? In Italian it is the melanzana, also known as the aubergine or in South Africa, brinjal. Eggplant is rich in antioxidants, fiber, B vitamins and manganese. This Old World food was introduced to Southern Italy by the Arabs. While we are used to seeing the oblong, rich purple variety, it actually comes in various colors and shapes. One of the early cultivars was round and white, which looked like a large egg.
Many Italian dishes are built around the eggplant which is considered “the supreme queen of Sicilian cooking,” from Fragrances and Flavors of Sicilian Cuisine. It can simply be sliced, grilled and drizzled with olive oil for a nice appetizer, or sliced, dipped in egg and bread crumbs and fried. Yet, in my opinion, the most delicious version is the layered with tomato sauce and parmesan cheese.
Two Southern Italian regions, Puglia (the heel of the boot) and Campania (home of Naples), have their own versions of Eggplant Parmigiana, as recorded in La Cucina: The Regional Cooking of Italy. For the recipe from Puglia, the eggplant is dipped in egg, dredged in flour and fried. It is then layered with tomato puree, sausage and Parmigiano-Reggiano, and baked.
The meatless recipe from Campania is from the region where my great grandparents were born. I guess the love for eggplant must have skipped a generation or two. Here is the recipe from Campania. It’s okay; Mom won’t mind.
Notes to the cook
At the risk of getting too technical, it is good to know some basic eggplant facts. The white flesh of this fruit (yes, it is a fruit-fun fact) is made of many cells filled with water. When frying eggplant, the water cells fill with oil and it becomes heavy and oily. We don’t want that. The best way to solve that problem is to slice, salt, and drain the eggplant before frying. Then all the water cells close up and the eggplant will not absorb much oil while frying. It also takes away the bitter flavor that is sometimes found in eggplant.
1. Cut into 1/4 inch slices
2. Salt both sides of each slice and lay vertically in a collander (the salt will draw water out of the cells)
3. Let drain for at least one hour (I like to plan ahead and let it drain overnight in the fridge).
4. Rinse and pat dry
5. You end up with soft tender slices that don’t require much frying or much oil in the process.
Vegetarian Eggplant Parmagiana
Traditional dish from Campania
- 2 lbs. eggplant (about 2 medium) – 1/4 inch slices
- extra virgin olive oil for frying eggplant
- 3 cups tomato sauce – 1 carrot cut into thin rounds, 1 stalk celery, finely diced, one medium onion, finely diced, one 28 ounce can of whole tomatoes.
- 5 ounces mozzarella cheese, grated
- 2/3 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, grated
- Heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a large skillet. Fry drained eggplant, a few slices at a time, flipping with a fork every minute or so until the slices begin to soften. Add a bit more olive oil as needed. Why fry the eggplant? Just to soften and remove a bit more of the moisture.
- Place eggplant slices on a kitchen towel to cool and to absorb oil.
- For tomato sauce, either use your own favorite sauce or use my recipe.
- Using a 9 x 9 inch baking dish, spread 2 ladle fulls of tomato sauce around the bottom of the dish. Begin with a layer of eggplant, then sauce and then cheeses. Repeat and keep layering until you fill the pan. Finish with a layer of Parmigiano-Reggiano.
- Bake uncovered in a 350 degree F oven for 20 minutes or until hot and bubbly.
- Serve immediately as a first course or main dish.
Enjoy with a glass of Aglianico wine – a full bodied red wine from Southern Italy. Buon Appetito!