A week ago at the local grocery store I found two beautiful, purple eggplants and I couldn’t resist the urge to buy them, and better yet, they were on sale!. I am not used to seeing these wonderful fruits in the store this time of year, as they are in season in most of the continental US in the late summer to fall. Sometimes, if I venture to a local farmer’s market I can find them in winter (I use the term “winter” loosely because Florida has a year-round growing season and winter never really visits here) but the grocery store has precious few eggplants in decent shape in June. I knew exactly my purpose for my purple treasures: Eggplant Parmesan!
Eggplant Parm, the way my family has cooked it for at least three generations, is probably much different from the more traditional way. I know it is not the healthiest preparation for eggplant, but I only prepare it once or twice a year at the most, so I can easily justify my way into a casserole dish of my favorite meal. Much goes into the preparation and cooking of this dish, starting right at the market. When I choose an eggplant, I look for long, slender fruits that are firm, not spongy or soft. They should be a dark purple-black color with no visible blemishes. The green “cap” sometimes has some sharp little thorns on it, so caution is recommended.
Some cooks prefer to prepare eggplant with the skin on. I always peel mine before I slice them, mainly because the skin tends to be tough, I don’t believe the skin adds anything to the end result, and because that’s the way Dad did it. Who is going to argue with my half-Italian father about peeling or not peeling eggplants? Not I! So, I peel the eggplants and slice them short-wise (so the slices are round) into slices approximately 1/8 inch wide, sometimes thinner. I am an “eyeballer” when it comes to slicing things. My dad, however, had a nice slicer that resembled a deli slicing machine. As long as my knife is plenty sharp, I can slice them just fine by hand. You don’t want them too thick, or they will not cook correctly and will be rubbery. As I slice them, I stack them in layers on a plate, sprinkling salt lightly on each layer. This helps to sweat the eggplant. I use Salt Sense for this purpose because it’s not as salty as conventional table salt, yet does the trick very nicely! Sweating eggplant is essential for this recipe to work. This process helps to draw some of the natural liquid out of the eggplant so the slices are easier to cook without the bitterness for which eggplant is known. Once all the eggplants are sliced and salted, I cover the pile with another plate, inverted (like a sandwich) and I place something heavy on the stack, usually a saucepan filled with water. The eggplant need to sweat at least 30 minutes, though I’ve let mine go for an hour and they’re fine.
Once the eggplant are done sweating, I just grab a few slices (about 10 at a time) and gently squeeze some of the remaining water out of the eggplant. At this stage, they are ready to be fried. Here is where my “eggplant makeover” differs from how my family has cooked this dish. My method, which I think is a bit less calorie-dense, requires frying just one time, where my family recipe calls for a double fry in the oil. I’ll explain both ways, but continue on with how I’m making this batch.
The family recipe calls for the eggplant slices to be fried in oil lightly on both sides, 1-2 minutes on each side. They are then removed to paper towels to drain. While the next batch is frying, a quarter slice of American cheese is placed on one of the freshly fried slices and covered with another, making a “sandwich.” This sandwich is dredged in Italian bread crumbs, dipped in egg and fried again, making the cheese melty and delectable and the bread crumb coating crispy and browned. At this stage of cooking, fresh from the hot oil, they are hard to keep from eating, even without tomato sauce! Once all of the eggplants have been fried the second time, they are placed in a casserole dish, starting with sauce on the bottom, then layering eggplant, sauce and Parmesan cheese, one layer at a time until the dish is full. Think of layering a lasagna and you get the idea.
My new way of making eggplant is easier and less time-consuming. I dip my freshly sweated eggplant slices into an egg bath, then into Italian bread crumbs, and finally into a hot oil “bath” where they cook on each side about 2-3 minutes, or until browned. They are removed from the oil and drained on paper towels until I’m finished cooking the whole batch. I use a cast iron skillet with light vegetable oil to fry them on medium heat (5 on our stove.) They should cook slowly enough so that the coating does not burn or get too brown without cooking the eggplant inside. The slice is finished cooking when it is tender.
From here on out, the method is the same as the tried and true family recipe with one exception: in addition to the sauce and Parmesan cheese, I add a small handful of mozzarella cheese into each layer (approx. 1/4 cup.) Once your casserole dish is full, bake at 350 degrees until heated through, or about 30-45 minutes, depending on your oven. Serve with your favorite pasta, or just dish up the slices and place in a hard Kaiser roll and enjoy!
- 2-3 Eggplant, peeled and sliced into 1/8″ slices
- Egg Beaters* I used half of a quart container
- Italian bread crumbs, have plenty on hand
- Vegetable or Olive oil, for frying
- Your favorite pasta sauce
- Parmesan cheese to taste
- Mozzarella cheese to taste
*I use Egg Beaters or other whole egg substitute because natural eggs make the oil VERY foamy while cooking. I have not tried this using liquid egg whites. If you try this, I’d be curious to know if they worked without foaming, so please leave a note in the Comments section. Thank you!