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Recipe solves the puzzle of eggplant Parmesan

  • NEW YORK TIMES

    Crunchy eggplant Parmesan is more like a cutlet of veal or chicken, and isn’t turned to sludge by the sauce.

I’ve never made an eggplant Parmesan that I didn’t regret.

Draining, dredging and frying eggplant slices is a completely worthwhile project. But according to most American recipes, I am supposed to bury those crisp slices in tomato sauce, bake them into mush and still expect deliciousness. This never happens. The breading in the crust always soaks up the liquid, and the whole thing becomes mired in sludge.

Something’s been lost in translation.

Still, I believe that eggplant Parmesan is — or should be — the perfect crowd-pleasing vegetarian entree, with its familiar flavors and satisfying richness. A main dish of eggplant has heft.

I was determined to reformulate the dish so that the eggplant would behave like a cutlet of veal or chicken, standing on its own crusty merits.

In the real world, how to put crunchy eggplant, juicy tomato sauce and melted cheese together on one plate? As is often the case, the answer to my cooking puzzle was already lurking in the memory of chef Jacques Pepin.

As a boy, Pepin helped his mother in the family’s restaurant kitchen near Lyon, where he watched her make beignets d’aubergines. She’d split the large eggplants in half, then thinly slice each half while keeping the slices attached at the stem end, and dip them in a light, eggy batter.

“It was a little like tempura, and I don’t know how she knew to do it, but it worked,” he said.

The slices fan out prettily, and even a fat eggplant becomes flat enough to cook as a cutlet. This way of preparing the vegetable for frying is also traditional in Sicily, where the puffed, golden-brown whole eggplants are called melanzane a quaglia, or eggplant quail-style. The slices curl up and arch as they hit the hot oil, making them look like birds’ wings.

Doing this with smaller whole eggplants works beautifully. I salt the eggplants lavishly, not because of any bitterness that needs to be removed but to firm and season the flesh. (Eggplant flesh itself is almost devoid of flavor and consists mainly of fiber.)

Pressing the eggplants down as they absorb the salt helps both expel liquid and force them into a flatter shape, the better for pan-frying.

Make sure the batter permeates all the edges and crevices of the eggplant, and then plaster the surface with panko or breadcrumbs.

Once the eggplant was addressed, I needed hot tomato sauce and melted mozzarella to complete the dish. I dropped spoonfuls of mozzarella into simmering tomato sauce, left them to melt, then spooned them out together.

To keep the eggplant crisp to the very end, I placed the sauce and cheese next to the eggplant on each serving plate, but you might spoon them on top.

This revised classic is an excellent reminder that new ways with old dishes are always out there — and sometimes they come from our oldest sources.

Crunchy Eggplant Parmesan

  • 8 to 10 small eggplants
  • Salt
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 3 large egg yolks
  • 2 cups ice water
  • 2 cups dry breadcrumbs or panko, seasoned with 1 teaspoon each salt, black pepper, garlic powder and dried oregano
  • Vegetable oil, for frying
  • 3 cups tomato sauce, preferably homemade
  • 4 to 6 ounces packaged mozzarella, shredded or diced
  • Freshly minced basil or parsley, for serving

Heat oven to 325 degrees. Set a large ovenproof wire rack over a large rimmed baking sheet.

With a small, sharp knife, starting just below the stem, cut each eggplant lengthwise into 1/4-inch-thick slices, keeping them attached at the stem. Place on paper towels and press down to fan slices out. Sprinkle with salt on both sides; set aside.

In a medium bowl, whisk flour with egg yolks and half the water until almost smooth, then whisk in remaining water. Add a little more water if batter seems too thick; it should be runny, like glue.

Place breadcrumbs and seasonings in medium bowl and lightly mix and crush together with your hands.

In a large, deep skillet, heat a generous 1/2 inch vegetable oil until shimmering (about 350 degrees).

Working in batches, dip eggplants in batter, dredge in breadcrumbs and add to skillet. Fry until nicely browned on bottom, about 3 minutes. Reduce heat if eggplants are browning too quickly. Turn and cook until browned on second side, about 3 minutes longer. Transfer to the rack set over the baking sheet and season with salt; transfer to oven to keep warm while you fry the remaining eggplant.

In a wide skillet, heat marinara sauce over low until bubbling. Divide mozzarella into 8 to 10 piles (one for each eggplant). Pick up and place piles of cheese in sauce, spacing piles out so they melt separately. You may need to do this in 2 batches.

Divide eggplants on plates. Place a spoonful of sauce next to or on top of each eggplant. Top sauce with melted mozzarella, lifting it out with a slotted spoon. Sprinkle with fresh herbs, and serve immediately. Serves 4-5.

Nutritional information unavailable.

And to drink …

While this recipe may revolutionize the method for preparing eggplant Parmesan, it does not change the sort of wine you want, a lively red with good acidity.

White wines are best for dishes made with fresh tomatoes, but reds work better with tomato sauces like the marinara used here.

Acidity is the key. You don’t want reds that are too oaky, tannic or alcoholic. That leaves plenty of choices, especially among Italian reds.

Barberas from Alba or Asti in northwest Italy practically epitomize the low-tannin, high-acidity definition. Happily, lower-priced versions that were not aged in new oak will be ideal.

The same is true of Chianti, made of the sangiovese grape, but steer clear of more expensive, and oaky, riservas. Valpolicella is another possibility, and if you would like some bubbles, how about a good Lambrusco?

———

Eric Asimov, New York Times

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