Summer Cooking ~ Eggplant Parmesan
I recently read and very much enjoyed “Cod: The biography of the fish that changed the world,” by Mark Kurlansky. I knew Kurlansky from other excellent book, “Salt.” In both, he tells us about how many critical events in history happened around cod and salt and how their impact has contributed to shape our current world.
Eggplant could well deserve a book in that fashion. There’s so much history and cuisine around eggplant that there’s plenty of material for a wonderful reading. Eggplant has not been as important as cod and salt, that’s for sure. Nonetheless, it has a colorful and rich history.
To begin with, eggplants have triggered so many funny reactions in different times and different parts of the world. It’s just fascinating to see why then and there one or another curious response to it took place. The most famous one is the name given in Italy, during the middle ages, when it was considered to cause insanity and got to be called “mad apple” (mela-insana / melanzana), a name that remained until today in the Italian language. Then, interestingly, during the 16th century in Europe, it was called “poma amoris”, meaning “love apple,” an altogether departure from the fear of a crazy veggie. We humans are funny…
The name of eggplant dates back of the days of British colonialism (not so funny). While in India, the British noticed one of the many varieties of eggplant, the one with one white bone color and of egg shape.
The French called it aubergine. That came from the Arabic. The Arabic word made into Castillian, from there into the Catalonian, then into French and back to England as aubergine, as it is known is many part of the US.
The plant is originally from Asia, widely present in the culinary tradition of China, Thailand and India.
For us in California, where eggplant is cultivated and also grows and in thousands of home vegetable gardens, it makes sense to learn more about this prodigal vegetable.
Its many shapes and varied colors are alone good reason for paying more attention to it. Go to any farmer’s market during summer, as the one in Chico, and you’ll surely find yourself admiring deep purple, mottled with white and bright indigo or pinkish skins. Sometimes, the Thai variety of green color is available. One often considers buying them for the sole purpose of decorating our kitchens and enjoy their beauty.
There are so many things you can do with eggplant. As we hear the innumerable dishes you go around the world: ratatouille in France, baba ganoush in the middle East, stir fry dishes in Asia, caponata in Sicily, escalivada in the Catalonian countries, the aubergines patés made in France, cooked with olives and artichokes in Tunisia, the eggplant and yogurt spreads of Greece, the essential presence of it in moussaka (hard to think of Greek cuisine without eggplant by the way).
There is also abundance of recipes for scrambled eggs with eggplant, grilled eggplants with all kind of sauces, eggplant and tomato salad, stuffed eggplant, lamb stew with eggplants and what not.
Eggplant makes a great filling in sandwiches, fried, grilled or charred.
It’s also perfect for being marinated in a jar with olive oil and spices and then serve as an appetizer. I still remember those wonderful jars a friend of the family would bring us from time to time that I avidly devoured as a teenager with good appetite.
What eggplant dishes consistently offer is to be a great vehicle for good olive oil. As it happens with tomatoes, also of the same family of night shades, olive oil and aubergines enhance each other.
My favorite eggplant dish is eggplant parmesan (melanzane alla Parmiggiana). Though more than one Southern regions of Italy claim the recipe it became an all Italian pride. The dish, a formidable example of creativity and “cucina povera,” out of simple, country side good ingredients, can be truly memorable if well made and with good ingredients and good olive oil.
Having eggplant in season for a couple of weeks more and plenty available, here’s a recipe:
- 5-6 medium or medium-large eggplant
- a similar amount of tomatoes (kind of equal amount of tomatoes to eggplants, needing rather well ripped ones) or, 1 cup/8 oz. of tomato sauce (much better if the sauce is done from scratch).
- 2/3 cup of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
- sea salt
- basil leaves
Clean the eggplants (rinse and cut the stems).
Cut lengthwise in thick slices.
In order to de-bitter the eggplant, sprinkle the slices with gross sea salt and leave them to rest for a couple of hours. The salt will help draining the eggplant juices, carrying some of the bitterness with it.
Rinse and dry the slices. Remove the seeds.
Fry them in a pan on medium heat in olive oil until golden-brown.
Place them in a tray with paper towel to drain some of the olive oil.
Brush a baking tray with olive oil.
Line a first layer of the eggplant slices. Place on top a layer of the ripe tomatoes or/and some tomato sauce, some of the Parmesan cheese, some basil leaves, salt, pepper and drizzle some olive oil. Repeat the same building up three or four layers. The top layer has to be topped with tomato sauce and a good deal of the cheese.
Bake for 40’ at 350 F.
A great addendum is fresh mozzarella slices in each of the layers.
The dish is perfect for a glass of red wine. A California Zinfandel it’s a good option, as many other reds will do as well.