Melanzane alla Parmigiana
In 2014, I went on a bicycle tour to Sicily’s southeastern coastal villages (Ragusa, Marina di Ragusa, Ragusa Ibla, Scicli, Modica, Marzememi, Noto, and Siracusa). It was my first trip ever to Sicily and while I didn’t get to see all of this spectacular island, including the village (Villafrati) where my grandmother was born, it was a trip that will forever be burned in my memory. Since I was on a bicycle tour, the main event each day was biking the mountains roads from one town to the next. Ok, well that’s a lie, our main event was actually eating our way to the next town with a little biking of the mountainous roads in between.
OK enough about that, let’s move on to what you’re really interested in - eggplant parmigiana or le melanzane alla parmigiana. The origins of this dish are unclear and Sicily, Campania and Parma claim this dish as their own. While in Sicily, I took two cooking classes, one in the Val di Noto region and one in Siracusa, and in both classes we made slightly different versions of eggplant parmigiana. Although the Sicilian chefs had slightly different ways of making it, they were both in agreement about its origin, it is in fact, Sicilian. Certamente... and I’ll go with that. The word parmigiana actually has nothing at all to do with parmesan cheese. The meaning of parmigiana relates to the layering of the dish. Both versions that I made were delicious, one recipe included layers of prosciutto and eggs and the other did not. I’ve combined the two versions into one recipe below. Since I prefer the dish without the eggs and prosciutto, I made them both optional. The recipe is long and there are quite a few steps but it's actually fairly simple to make. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
For the eggplant parmigiana:
- 2-1/2 pounds medium eggplants (about 3), cut lengthwise into 1/4-inch-thick slices
- 3 teaspoons salt
- 1-1/2 cups plus 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 3 to 4 cups fresh tomato sauce
- 3 to 4 hard boiled eggs, roughly chopped (optional)
- 2 ounces of finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
- 1 pound of provolone cheese (mild), thinly sliced
- 1/2 to 1 pound of prosciutto cotto, thinly sliced (optional)
For the fresh tomato sauce:
- 5 pounds fresh plum or vine-ripened tomatoes
- 2 large garlic cloves, finely chopped
- 1 small onion, finely chopped
- 2 handfuls fresh basil leaves
- 3 to 4 tablespoons tomato paste
- 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 1 cup of water
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- salt to taste
Step 1: Slice each eggplant lengthwise into 1/4-inch-thick slices.
Step 2: Layer sliced eggplant in a bowl and sprinkle salt between layers. Place a plate over eggplant and put a weight on top. Let set for at least 1 hour. Drain water from bowl, then wash and dry eggplant thoroughly. This salting step is necessary to remove the eggplant’s excess water before deep frying it. According to Cook’s Illustrated, the eggplant’s flesh contains air-filled compartments enclosed by water fortified walls. If you deep-fry the eggplant without removing the water first, the air sacs will fill with oil, leaving you with very greasy eggplant. In addition, the water left in the eggplant will turn to steam as you heat the eggplant, damaging the structure of the fruit, and again leaving you with mushy and oily eggplant. So the bottom line is, don’t skip this step. It’s important in order to avoid mushy, greasy eggplant.
Step 3: While the eggplant is draining, prepare the fresh tomato sauce. Wash and sort tomatoes, removing any bruised or discolored product. Quarter tomatoes and place in a large stainless steel stockpot (if using small tomatoes, cut in half).
Step 4: Add a handful of basil leaves and a splash of olive oil (about 1 tablespoon) to your pot of tomatoes. Bring to a boil over medium high heat. Stir occasionally to crush tomatoes and release their juice. Cook over medium high heat until tomatoes are soft and juicy, about 10 to 15 minutes. Remove from heat.
Step 5: Working in batches, press tomatoes through a food mill to remove skins and seeds.
Step 6: Return tomato sauce (just pressed through the food mill) to stockpot and bring to boil.
Step 7: Meanwhile heat 3 tablespoons olive oil in a 5-quart heavy pot over moderately high heat until hot but not smoking, then add onions and garlic and sauté, stirring, until fragrant about 30 seconds to 1 minute. Add tomato sauce, sugar, salt and a few more leaves of fresh basil.
Step 8: Combine the tomato paste and water together and then add to your sauce. Cook, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until slightly thickened, 25 to 30 minutes. If sauce if too thick, add more water.
Step 9: To deep fry the eggplant: Heat oil in a deep saucepan until it reaches 425 degrees Fahrenheit on a deep-fry thermometer. Working in batches, gently place eggplant slices into hot oil and fry until golden brown, 2 to 3 minutes. Transfer with tongs to a paper-towel-lined plate.
Step 10: Spread 1 cup tomato sauce in bottom of a rectangular 3-1/2-quart (13- by 11- by 2-inch) baking dish. Arrange about one third of eggplant slices in one layer over sauce, overlapping slightly if necessary. Next layer the prosciutto cotto (if adding) over the eggplant, followed by the provolone cheese, eggs, basil and parmesan cheese. Cover with about one third of remaining sauce. Continue layering with remaining eggplant, prosciutto, provolone, eggs, basil and sauce. Sprinkle top with 1/3 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Step 11: Broil, uncovered, until cheese is melted and golden and sauce is bubbling, about 5 to 10 minutes. Alternatively, you can cook in an oven at 300 degrees Fahrenheit for 15 to 20 minutes.
Step 12: Cut and serve