eggplant sort-of parm


Our farm share has been amazing this summer. A lot like winning the vegetable lottery, if you will. What will we get? How much? And after we receive 15 pounds of tomatoes in one week (true) or two massive bunches of dill (also true), what will we make? What will these treasures become?

That's the fun of it, really, concocting a recipe or taking a stab at an ingredient I would have otherwise passed up. This, my friends, is true whenever I have stumbled upon an eggplant. We usually just make awkward eye contact in the produce section. I usually compliment its good looks (internally, of course, because I'm not completely insane after all), wonder how something with such a gorgeous, deep purple complexion can always turn out to be such a massive fail when placed in my hands. Don't get me wrong, I like eggplant, quite a lot actually. When someone else is making it. When it's cooked down in a curry stew or prepared in some other way that seems to go terribly awry only when I'm in charge.

You, too? Don't feel bad. Eggplant is a tricky one, to say the least. It's very finicky in its preparation and requires a lot of fussing and fretting over the many steps it takes to make it, well, edible. There's no slice-and-go method with eggplant. You have to have a little time on your hands.

So now that half a dozen eggplants were thrown into my life, I thought: what's one way that eggplant can't disappoint? How have I had it prepared where I've always thought, sheesh, this is good. Eggplant parmesan is pretty damn classic. I'm pretty sure it's the sort of thing you could feed to a picky eater, one that claimed they didn't like vegetables even, and they'd still find a way to at least mildly enjoy it.

After scouring the internet for inspiration, I settled upon this one posted by Nancy Jo on Food52. This version won the site's Best Eggplant recipe contest, so I thought: definitely, this is the one. Now, I didn't follow this recipe too exactly (Nancy, don't tell your Nonna), but it definitely got me through the parts of eggplant prep that always tripped me up before. The only real adjustment I made here was to use a little less - okay, a lot less - cheese, going super light on the parm and nixing the mozzarella altogether. Hence the "sort-of parm" rather than traditional just-parm. AND, I used my own sauce recipe, which you can find here.

For this recipe, you'll need:

About 3 pounds of eggplant, which equals out to about 3-4 medium size ones
1/2 cup of all-purpose flour
Generous amounts of olive oil
About 1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese
2-3 cups of sprint or marathon sauce

A quick note about choosing your eggplant: you want to go for one that hasn't gotten too big, as the bigger they get, the more bitter the flavor. They'll also have bigger seeds, and more of them, which aren't super appealing to eat in large quanities.

SO. Peel your eggplants and slice on the thin side, about 1/4 inch thick. Sprinkle each side generously with salt and place on a sheet pan lined with paper towels. Once you've salted each piece on both sides, place something weighted, such as another sheet pan, on top of the tray of eggplant. You're going to want to let them sweat for at least thirty minutes, but longer will help drain out more of the liquid that can give eggplant its bitter, unpleasant flavor. I let mine go for about an hour. Nancy suggests that while the eggplants sweats, you can make your sauce. I already had mine made the day before, so I believe I did something along the lines of taking a nap. You get the idea.

Once your eggplant is fully drained, pat each slice dry, wiping off any excess salt. Trust me, too much will totally ruin the flavor. Heat your oven to 450 degrees and spread some olive oil on the bottom of one of your sheet pans. Lightly dredge each slice in flour and bake until lightly browned on each side, flipping after 15 minutes. Repeat until all the slices have gone into the oven.

Using a 9-inch square baking dish (or, let's face it, whatever size you've got on hand), put a thick layer of sauce all over the bottom of the dish. Layer with your sliced eggplant and top with more sauce. Repeat until you've used all your eggplant, finish the top with another generous layer of sauce. Sprinkle the top of your dish with the 1/2 cup of cheese. Place in the oven to bake for about 20 minutes. Since everything involved is technically already cooked, you're really just waiting for the cheese to get a little bubbly and crispy. Use your best judgement.

Seriously, this was a huge hit (or a hugeass hit), to the point where I was surprised at how good it really was. Eggplant, as it turns out, when done right, has a hint of subtle sweetness to it and is not at all tough or chewy. I think Nonna would have been proud.