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.
This is going to be a short note about canning and tomato sauce.
I know…I know…there are a billion places on the web where you can get canning advice, and there are even more tomato-sauce recipes, likely you make your grandmother’s recipe (or your mother’s recipe, or a neighbor’s recipe, or Alton Brown’s recipe or…or…or…
I’m going to add one more voice to the Greek Chorus, and while these are probably the most overused food-column subjects on the planet, I humbly suggest you actually try this one, because it is so bloody simple and so bloody tasty that I may actually influence you to give up your day-long adventure in kitchen drudgery, which most tomato sauces tend to be–no self-respecting grandmother I know would ever subscribe or give props to a sauce that doesn’t simmer all day, and which likely takes even longer to clean up. Besides, the longer you simmer, the more sugar you’ll have to add, because long simmering makes tomatoes bitter, not better (notice there’s no sugar in my recipe? Just a little in the ketchup to offset the vinegar a bit. Is there sugar in your recipe?).
No sir or ma’am, I don’t roll in that direction. If you’ve read this space before, you know that perhaps only second to fresh and local, I am all about quick and simple. I have teen-age daughters. I don’t have time to spend all day in the kitchen. And don’t bother removing the skins and seeds from the tomatoes unless you have all the time in the world. I don’t. There is grass to mow, shopping to get done, laundry to do, trash to take out, swimming (or, currently, field hockey) practices to drive to, dance classes (soooooo many dance classes)…so who has time to give an entire day to a tomato sauce?
Not me. And in this recipe it really doesn’t make that much of a difference. And the seeds will signal to your guests that it really is garden-fresh sauce.
So here, I’m going to give you a simple variation on the marinara sauce with which I am most familiar–the one from South Beach.
It’s spicy (but not too spicy), sweet (but not too sweet), garlicky (but not too…oh, hell, yes it is…), and made with a surprise: white wine along with the red. Heresy? Sure. But just wait till you taste.
And then, I’m going to suggest that you can the sauce, so that you’ll have plenty of fresh-ingredient sauce all winter. I just know that by now, you have too many tomatoes in your garden, and people are leaving more and more every day on the break-room table, right? So you look right past them, thinking, “Oh, God, not MORE tomatoes!!!”
I say, TAKE ‘EM! Make sauce. Keep making it until your fingers ache. This is such a simple recipe you’ll make it over and over and over. The hardest part s chopping the herbs–there are lots and lots. But give this a try. Then can as much as you can. If you don’t have canning supplies, spend thirty bucks on a cheap canning set: a large pot, a set of canning tools (look ’em up on Google or at the website of one of the big boxes. A dozen pint jars cost about eight bucks, quart jars about ten. Compare this to the cost of one quart of decent sauce at the store. You’ll be converted, because it’s so simple, and it is so much better.
Here’s the scoop:
CHEFFZILLA’S MARINARA SAUCE
Fresh tomatoes; it takes about 2 1/2 pounds of tomatoes per pint (5 pounds per quart) of finished jars. This recipe is for six pints. 15 pounds of tomatoes; I like San Marzanos, but use any kind, just make sure they’re ripe.
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large sweet onion, diced fine
1/2 to 1 cup minced garlic. I know it’s a lot. But trust me here. It makes a difference. You can actually use garlic from a bottle sold in the grocery store’s produce section. I didn’t, because I had lots of garlic laying around from Caitlin and EmmaKate’s CSA at Blue Rock Farm
1 cup good quality red wine (don’t use cooking wine or cheap table wine–buy decent wines to cook with. Rule of thumb: if you wouldn’t drink it, don’t cook with it.
1/2 cup good quality dry white wine (same rules apply–if you wouldn’t, don’t)
1/2 cup each fresh parsley and basil leaves plus a few whole branches of basil
1/4 cup each fresh oregano and thyme
1/2 cup balsamic vinegar
1 cup ketchup
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon dried red pepper flakes (optional, but c’mon!) Want a Fra Diavolo? 1 tablespoon
1. Wash the jars and lids in the dishwasher with just a little bit of soap; or hand wash. Set the jars in the canning pot and fill with water until there is about 1 inch of water above the tops of the jars.
2. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees; wash the tomatoes, cut them in half (quarters if they are large), lay them out on a baking sheet or two, lay the basil branches over the tomatoes, spray with a bit of olive oil spray, and roast for 15 minutes. Remove from the oven and allow to cool to “handling” temperature.
3. Chop all the herbs together into a large pile until they are all mixed up and finely chopped.
4. In a large heavy enamel or stainless-steel pot, heat the olive oil until it shimmers, turn down the heat to medium, and add the onions, stirring occasionally until they soften and turn translucent, about 15 minutes. Turn the heat up to medium-high, add the minced garlic and stir constantly for 60 seconds. NO MORE! Add the wine to the onions and garlic, stir to mix well, then add the herbs and stir again until fully mixed. Turn the stove down to medium-low and allow the wine, herbs, and aromatics to simmer until the wine is reduced by half.
5. While the wine is reducing, place the tomatoes, in batches, in a food processor and pulse four or five times, until the tomatoes are chopped fine, but not so they are completely pureed. When the wine is reduced, add the tomatoes to the pot, add the ketchup and vinegar, stir well, and reduce the pot to low-medium, bring to a simmer. Salt and pepper to taste. Reduce the heat further, until the pot is just bubbling lightly and partially cover the pot, allowing steam to escape. Stir every fifteen or twenty minutes and cook for two hours.
6. A half hour before the sauce is finished, bring the canning pot and jars to a boil. When the water is boiling hard, set the timer for 10 minutes. At the end of this time, turn off the heat but do not remove the jars. Add the lids and discs to the pot.
7. When the sauce is done, remove the jars, one at a time (do not touch the inside or the screw threads of the jars), pour out the water, and fill with sauce to within 1/4 inch of the top. Be sure to leave 1/4 inch at the top of the jar. Remove a lid from the water, screw it on tight, and place the jar back in the water; repeat with the remaining jars, removing enough water from the pot to ensure that the pot doesn’t spill over (If you have any sauce remaining, use it right away, even if you must simply dip good bread into the sauce and finish it yourself). Be sure there is at least an inch (two inches is better, three is even better) of water above the top of the jars.
8. Bring the pot back to a boil and set the kitchen timer for 75 minutes for pints or 90 minutes for quarts (add five additional minutes for each 1000 feet above sea level your kitchen is). When the timer beeps, turn the heat off, remove the lid, and allow the jars to rest five minutes unmoved. Then remove the jars from the water and set on a cooling rack or towel to cool, keeping them separated enough that they don’t prevent each other from cooling. Allow to cool completely, to room temperature, listening all the while for the lids to pop as they cool. All the lids should pop inward and they should be snug. If a lid doesn’t pop, place it back in boiling water for an additional 35 minutes and repeat the process. Allow the jars to sit, unmoved, for 24 hours. If a lid doesn’t pop again, refrigerate and use the sauce within 7 days.
These jars should keep in a cool, dry place for a year or more, but the sauce is so good, they won’t last that long. Trust me.
And one more thing: