Everyone has a story about a food they could not eat after getting the stomach flu. In second grade, I got a terrible stomach flu and for years afterward, I could not eat baklava. Yes, baklava. As a seven year old, I had baklava in my Donny Osmond lunch box. Perhaps this gives you a window into why I love, work with, and write about food. My mom cooked and baked all kinds of things and we went out to dinner at nice places. What she made for dinner was what was for dinner. If we didn’t like it, we didn’t eat. She was (and still is) a good cook who had her 20 or so dishes she loved to cook. We ate things like meatloaf, beef stew, and barbecued chicken, but we also ate mushroom barley soup, pasticcio, and eggplant parmesan.
I was a good eater, tried new things, but just could not embrace eggplant parmesan. I blame the eggplant. I’ve mentioned this several times before here but eggplant and I are on acquaintance-ly terms, not friendly terms. As in, I see you, I know you, I will smile at you, but you are not my friend. Over the years I have learned how I can be more friendly with it. Puréed in a baba ghanoush is nice or thinly sliced and grilled until smoky will do just fine. Rolled around pasta is a good way to disguise it. But put big chunks in a Thai curry or pasta dish and I will move it over to the other side of the plate.
As a grown up, in spite of my ambivalence to aubergines, I found an eggplant parmesan recipe that I liked. I made it for years and then one day, I stopped liking it. The eggplant itself was a little too much in the foreground and it had an annoying tendency to get all soupy in the oven. Cutting into it became an exercise in frustration. Recently I found this one, in Jamie Oliver’s delightful book Jamie’s Italy. There are several layers of genius here. The first is baking the eggplant rather than frying it. If you have fried eggplant, then you know it is really just like a vegetal sponge which soaks up oil at an alarming rate. For that reason, whenever I have made eggplant parmesan, I bake the slices until they are soft and slightly browned. Just a drizzle or a brush of olive oil is all you need and some time in a 375-400º oven. I’ve also grilled the slices for a bit more smokiness. The sauce that Oliver has you make is kind of your typical tomato sauce, except that it has a splash of wine vinegar at the end of cooking that does wonders for waking up the sauce and, in my opinion, the whole dish. There is a lot of Parmesan cheese and just a bit of mozzarella (which he says is optional, I say is necessary), and the whole thing is topped with bread crumbs that have been tossed with a bit of fresh (I used dried) oregano. That bit of crunch brings texture to a somewhat mushy dish and makes it a superstar in my humble opinion.
This is a Jamie Oliver recipe and if you have any of Jamie’s books, you know his recipes are written in a delightful voice. Very conversational and very him. I feel sort of funny using his unique voice so I’m going to change the recipe instructions to reflect some of the changes I made and to streamline them a bit. Finally, at this time of year, eggplant can be a bit dodgy, to use a British term. You want to look for those that are heavy for their size with a nice tight skin, and no soft spots. Even being careful, you can sometimes end up with one that is bruised beyond using, so I tend to buy an extra eggplant just in case. If you are making this delicious dish in the late summer/early fall when eggplants are gorgeous, no need to buy an extra.
One Year Ago: Spice Crispies
Two Years Ago: Simply Sweet Diamants, Pasta with Spicy Broccoli and Cauliflower,
Three Years Ago: White Bean Dip, Caramel Cake,
Four Years Ago: Guacamole, Lentils with Capers, Walnuts, and Mint (I still make this all the time)
Adapted from Jamie’s Italy
3 large firm eggplants
1 onion, peeled and finely chopped
1 clove garlic, peeled and finely sliced
1 heaping tsp. dried oregano, plus more for the breadcrumbs
1 28-ounce can whole tomatoes
Kosher or sea salt and freshly ground pepper
Splash wine vinegar
Large handful of basil leaves
4 large handfuls of Parmesan cheese
2 handfuls of dried breadcrumbs (homemade is best here)
1 5-ounce ball of fresh mozzarella cheese
Preheat the oven to 375ºF. Remove the stems from the eggplants and slice them into ½-inch thick slices. Lay the slices out on baking sheets (you may need to do this in batches depending on how many sheets you have). Either lightly drizzle them with olive oil, or using a pastry brush, brush the slices with olive oil. If you brush them, you will need to turn the slices over and brush the other side. You do not need to do this step if you drizzle. Sprinkle with a couple pinches of salt and a few grinds of pepper. Place in the oven and bake for 10 minutes. Remove the sheets and, using tongs, flip the pieces over. Return to the oven and bake for another 7 to 10 minutes, or until the slices are golden brown and dried out. Remove from the oven and allow to cool. Leave the oven on. (The eggplant can be made a day ahead. Cover and refrigerate. They will look shriveled and kind of ugly, but you won’t see their appearance in the final dish.)
Meanwhile, place a large pan over medium heat. Pour in enough olive oil to coat the bottom of the pan, then add the onions and a pinch of salt. Sauté until starting to soften, then add the garlic and 1 teaspoon of dried oregano. Continue to cook until the onions and garlic are starting to brown. Using your hands, break up the tomatoes and add them to the pan along with all the juice in the can. Give the mixture a good stir, then put the lid on the pan and simmer slowly for 15 minutes. When the sauce is reduced and sweet, season it carefully with salt, pepper, and a splash of wine vinegar. Then stir in the basil. (The sauce can be made a day or two ahead. Let it cool completely, then cover and refrigerate. If you opt to make the sauce ahead, don’t add the basil until just before you are going to use it, or it will turn black.)
Preheat the oven to 375º. Choose a casserole dish. I used a ceramic 15×10-ish inch ceramic pan for my dish. You can certainly use something smaller that will give you more layers and therefore a thicker casserole. Whatever you choose, put in a small layer of tomato sauce, then a thin scattering of Parmesan, followed by a single layer of eggplant. Repeat those layers until you’ve used all the ingredients, finishing with the mozzarella, then a little sauce over top, followed by the last of the Parmesan. Toss the breadcrumbs in enough olive oil to moisten them, and toss them with another teaspoon or so of dried oregano. Scatter the breadcrumbs over top. Place the dish in the oven and bake for about half an hour, until golden, crisp, and bubbly. Allow to set for 10 minutes before cutting into pieces.