Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Eggplant Parmigiano made for the Yogic Vegan's visit

I’m all for eating more vegetables and I’m all for spreading the word that vegetarian cooking can add a lot to your kitchen repertoire. But I was thrown for quite a loop when our dear friend, the doctor, informed us that she was now a Yogic Vegan. Vegans, in case you have never had the pleasure, are a tough lot to cook for. They not only eschew any kind of meat, poultry, or fish, they also restrict themselves to not eating any animal products at all. I mean any. The ramifications? Eggs? Animal Product. Cheese? Animal Product. But layer on Yogic to the vegan equation and here’s what else you can add to (or actually subtract from) your shopping list: Gelatin, rennet, garlic, onions, and mushrooms. I must admit I have no reasonable difficulty cooking without gelatin or rennet but the rest of the list gave me pause. However, there seemed to be a loophole because I’d very recently seen the good doctor devour a piece of ice cream cake at her child’s birthday party. Chink, chink. I contacted her and got a funny message back: “Oh sh*t”, she wrote. “ I just meant a kind of “quiet” vegan thing- and without the internet you would never have known-- nor would I have known, that there was actually such a thing. Bottom line: I am flexible and will eat anything other than a cow…….:). You can imagine my relief as I zeroed in on Eggplant Parmigiano as the centerpiece of an otherwise Vegetarian, though not vegan, meal.

Eggplant Parmigiano is one of the great vegetable courses of Italy, a country where meat for the masses wasn’t available on a daily basis until quite recently. Even now the “Mediterranean” diet doesn’t include nearly the volume of meat that the standard American diet does. The beautiful dish is quite labor intensive and time-consuming. And eggplant itself has to be coddled and cajoled into losing its somewhat bitter reputation. But the result is really a wonderfully rich and satisfying dish. It’s also something I think it makes sense to make in quantity since its flavor develops nicely when left over, it freezes well if properly stored and it’s one of those dishes that doesn’t take twice as long when you make twice as much. This recipe makes 12 servings.

Recipe for Melanzane al Parmigiano Or Eggplant Parmigiano

6 globe eggplant
Kosher Salt
4-6 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
3 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil for the tomato sauce 
1 cup of olive oil for sautéing the eggplant
2 – 28 oz. cans of crushed tomatoes in puree
2 tsp sugar
Fresh Basil
16 oz. of whole milk mozzarella cheese
1 cup grated parmigiano cheese
  • Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
  • Trim off the tops of the eggplant and then slice it lengthwise into ¼ to ½ inch pieces. The skin of the eggplant is what gives it it’s bitter taste.
  • You can peel the eggplant, of course, but I like to use the outer slices as the bottom layer of the dish. And after salting, the bitter taste disappears.
  • Use a sheet pan and a wire rack and put the eggplant slices on it. Thoroughly salt both sides of the eggplant. Let them release their liquid for one hour.
  • Meanwhile prepare the tomato sauce. In a large sauté pan, gently cook the garlic in the olive oil over medium heat until it is golden. Then add the tomatoes, the sugar and salt and pepper to taste. Bring the tomatoes to a boil, then lower heat and cook for 30 minutes. Add a chiffonade of 6 fresh basil leaves and cook over low heat another 15 minutes.
  • Using a paper towel, remove any excess moisture and salt from the eggplant slices and set aside.
  • Put 1 cup of olive oil in a large skillet and, heat over medium high until it shimmers. Then sauté the eggplant, in batches, about 4 minutes a side. It should be golden when done. Lightly salt and pepper the eggplant as you remove it.
  • Cover the bottom of a 9 X 13 inch pyrex dish or casserole with a layer of tomato sauce. Then layer the eggplant over the tomato sauce using the outer slices first.
  • Cut the mozzarella into thin slices. Tearing it up with your hands, lay the mozzarella pieces over the eggplant. Then put another layer of tomato sauce over the cheese and eggplant.
  • Continue layering tomato, cheese and eggplant. I like to make these layers as I am cooking the eggplant, adding the freshly sautéed eggplant to the dish as I go along.
  • End with a layer of tomato sauce. Take 12 whole basil leaves and space them equal distances apart over the top layer of sauce.
  • Cover the entire top layer with the grated Parmigiano cheese.
  • Bake for 25 minutes until the cheese is melted, browned and bubbling.
  • Let the dish rest for about 10 minutes, then serve.
With this dish, I like to serve a baguette or a crusty Peasant bread with a good crust. A green salad is an excellent accompaniment.
Footnote: As I proudly displayed my Eggplant Parmigiano, one of my guests looked over my shoulder and said: "Is that eggplant?  Sorry, I'm allergic to eggplant.  Well you can please some of the people....

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