The Exceptional Eggplant
Did you know eggplant is technically a berry, botanically classified as a fruit, and contains more nicotine than any other edible plant?
Eggplant, a nightshade closely related to both the tomato and potato family is a widely cultivated food native to the subcontinent of India. Its first recorded agricultural use dates back to 544 AD. Eggplants are grown for consumption all over the world, making it one of the most widely used vegetables on Earth.
Eggplant is one of the healthiest foods around. It is very abundant in Missouri, especially at the height of our beloved farmers market during the dog days of summer. Its skin has a bitter taste which, if cooked, evolves into a rich almost tannic flavor that is very unique and unlike any other vegetable. The flesh of the eggplant is a chameleon of sorts. It has high rates of absorption, especially in oil and sauces meaning it will really take on the flavor of what you choose to cook it in. This can be cut down significantly by de-gorging the cut eggplant. De-gorging is simply salting and rinsing the eggplant before cooking it.
Eggplant parmesan can be one of life’s simplest yet most elegant dishes. Like most things food related, great ingredients make the dish. I start with a rich, slow cooked tomato sauce using fresh, ripe Roma tomatoes or, if fresh tomatoes are out of season, a high quality canned variety like San Marzanno. Simplicity is definitely the key here; just some crushed garlic, an onion, some dry oregano and fresh basil along with appropriate amounts of salt and pepper create the base for this sauce while allowing the sauce to cook for several hours concentrates all of the flavors.
As the sauce is simmering to perfection you can prepare the remaining ingredients; peel, slice ,and soak your eggplant up to six but at least one hour prior to cooking it. You can prepare your breading station in advance, too. Once your sauce is finished and your eggplant has soaked for an appropriate amount of time, you can bread, par-fry and bake the eggplant parmesan and serve immediately. Alimento Amore!
Eggplant Parmesan serves 4
For the sauce:
10 roma tomatoes, split in half, seeds removed
2 tablespoons quality olive oil
1 tablespoon chopped garlic
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1 tablespoon dried oregano
½ yellow onion, diced
1 cup water
8 large leaves fresh basil
Salt and pepper to taste
Sherry vinegar to taste
In a large sauce pot on high heat combine the tomatoes, oil, garlic, onion, red pepper flakes and dried oregano. Stir until all ingredients are evenly distributed and allow the pot to cook on high until the onions start to caramelize, about three minutes. Add the water, cover and reduce the heat to low and let it cook for 3-4 hours. Give it a stir occasionally to make sure the sauce is not sticking to the bottom of your pot. When the tomatoes have been broken down and you can’t see the onions anymore, puree the sauce in the pot with a hand blender. Allow it to cool slightly before adding the fresh basil leaves and pureeing again. Season the finished sauce with salt and pepper and a splash of sherry vinegar.
For the eggplant:
2 large eggplants
½ cup kosher salt
½ gallon hot water
For the breading:
One cup flour
1 teaspoon dry oregano
½ teaspoon paprika
¼ teaspoon cayenne powder
3 large eggs
½ cup milk
2 cups panko bread crumbs
2 tablespoons dry crumbled parmesan
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon onion powder
1 teaspoon dry parsley flakes
3 cups peanut oil
8 slices high quality provolone or mozzarella cheese
¼ pound Parmesan-Reggiano, shredded
4 leaves fresh basil, hand torn
Dissipate the salt in the hot water. Set aside. Peel and slice the eggplant, about a half inch in thickness. Soak the eggplant in the salted water for at least one hour and up to six. Drain, rinse, and pat dry the eggplant under cold water before cooking.
Pre-heat oven to 400 degrees. Heat the peanut oil on medium high in a sauté pan until it reaches 350 degrees. In three separate dishes, combine the flour, oregano, paprika and cayenne powder in one, the eggs and milk in another and the panko, parmesan, salt, onion powder and parsley flakes in the last. Dredge the eggplant in the flour, then the egg wash and finally the breadcrumb mixture. Fry the eggplant slices on both sides just until the breading is golden, about one and a half minutes on each side. Remove the eggplant and transfer the cooked slices on a paper towel.
Once all of the sliced eggplant pieces are cooked arrange them on a baking sheet and bake for 4 minutes to heat them all through. Top with the cheese slices and bake again, until the cheese is bubbly. Pull them from the oven and arrange the dish on a large platter by adding the sauce first, the eggplant second and topping it all with the shredded Parmesan-Reggiano and the fresh torn basil leaves.