Just the mention of this tender, aromatic dish sends Italian-food lovers into spasms of joy, and often, jags of wonderful (or dreadful, I’m afraid) childhood memories. If your Grandma made this dish, you either loved it or hated it, but there’s no getting around the fact that most adults can’t get enough of this one. Having grown up in a (mostly) kosher home–some of you know about the time Dad came home, a smoked ham in one hand and a box of gifts from his favorite customers in Chester, PA in the other, and demanded the end to this craziness (his words), and kosher in our house was no more–there was no eggplant Parmesan in our house. Mom occasionally made spaghetti sauce, but it was about as far from authentic Italian red gravy as salt-water taffy.
I learned my sauce-making skills from the skilled chefs at the Epicure Market in South Beach, and refined them to a honed edge at the feet of an employer named Bud Bruno (the finest Italian chef I ever met) in his little kitchen in Ardmore, Pennsylvania. What I learned from Bud was the magic of fresh ingredients, really good olive oil, and little else–an authentic red sauce was at the same time simple and complex, with flavors that were meant to go together. And this one is light as a feather. Not much oil, no battering and frying of the eggplant, and you can eat as much as you want–it won’t weigh you down.
This recipe doesn’t, however rely on one of those long-simmered, tradition-babied, fussed-over red sauces, but rather all the elements of a perfect red sauce, blended together with love but not with much time or effort. Just toss the ingredients together in a bowl and let ’em marry in the bowl for a while. Then go.
Here’s the recipe, and be gentle. Don’t over think this one. It can’t really be much simpler.
EASY ON THE BELT LINE EGGPLANT PARMESAN
1 tablespoon good extra-virgin olive oil
6 cloves garlic
1/2 large sweet onion, chopped
2 cups fresh, coarsely chopped plum tomatoes (San Marzano, if you can find them) with their juice
2 tablespoons dry red table wine
2 tablespoons dark balsamic vinegar
1/4 cup chopped fresh basil
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
Olive oil spray
2 egg whites
2 1/2 lbs eggplant, peeled and cut crosswise into 1/2″-thick slices
1/2 cup plain dried bread crumbs or 1 cup Panko
1 cup shredded part-skim mozzarella cheese (about 4 oz)
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
About three hours before serving, sauté the onions and garlic with the good olive oil until tender and transparent, 8-10 minutes at medium heat. In a medium bowl, stir together tomatoes and their juice, basil, parsley, wine, vinegar, salt, pepper, garlic, and onions (from here on I’ll call this the sauce). Cover with plastic wrap and set aside.
An hour later, preheat the oven to 400°F. Line two or three baking sheets with foil. Spray the foil with olive-oil cooking spray.
In a shallow dish, beat the egg whites and 2 tbsp of water until foamy, and prepare another shallow dish with Panko. Dip eggplant into the egg whites, then into the bread crumbs, pressing crumbs into the eggplant.
Place the eggplant slices on the prepared baking sheets and spray oil lightly over the slices. Bake 30 minutes, turning over after 20 minutes, until golden brown and cooked through.
Spoon 4 tbsp of sauce into bottom of 9″ square glass baking dish that has been sprayed with olive oil. Place half the eggplant over the sauce; spoon half of remaining sauce over the eggplant; and sprinkle half of mozzarella on top. Repeat with remaining eggplant, sauce, and mozzarella.
Sprinkle Parmesan on top and bake for 20-30 minutes, or until eggplant is piping hot, the sauce is bubbly, and the cheese has to lightly brown.
This dish will serve 4 generously, and leave you with a couple of pieces leftover for lunches the next day.