Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Farm Market Finds: Eggplant Parmesan


Don't be scared.






So what do you do when you have freshly picked, vine-ripened, locally grown tomatoes coming out of your ears?  Why, you make sauce, of course.  And believe me, we have had a lot of Spaghetti Caprese this summer.  But as crazy as it sounds, even your favorite things can get old when they become too common. Still, I love tomatoes more than any other produce, and I just love fresh tomato sauce, so I had to find some other ways to use it.



Well, the eggplant came in this past weekend at the farm market, and they are just so pretty, I had to bring a few of them home. My first thought was ratatouille, which I made with great success last summer. The kids ate it right up! I think watching the movie while we ate it helped. Everything necessary is available right now, so it is on the menu, and I will post the recipe soon.

It took me a while to consider making eggplant Parmesan before I actually did it last summer. For one thing, there's no meat!  For another thing, it's eggplant, pretending to be meat! I was afraid that just wouldn't go over around here.

But when the kids were at Grandma's, I thought, why not give it a try? Boy, am I glad I did! Not only did I not miss meat, but I stumbled upon an idea that worked so well that I might keep it a secret.

Just kidding. I don't believe in secret recipes. So let's get started.

First, make the sauce. This sauce is similar to the sauce I use in Spaghetti Caprese, since it uses fresh tomatoes that have to be peeled, but I don't bother to seed the tomatoes here. Spaghetti Caprese is almost as much about texture as flavor, so I don't want the seeds interfering with that. But here, there is so much going on that you won't even notice the seeds.



So peel the tomatoes, and then core them. From there, just pull them apart and mash them up with your fingers. Go ahead and get in there. Don't be prissy! Those hands will wash! You just want to break them down into small pieces. Then separate the flesh from the juice. It doesn't have to be completely--don't dirty a sieve or anything. Just lift the pieces of flesh out from the bowl and put them into another bowl.

Now you will need a chopped onion and a couple of cloves of garlic. I just rough chopped the onion and sliced the garlic. It's all going to be pureed eventually, so no need to be fussy.

Saute the onion in some olive oil until softened, but not brown. Add the garlic and about 1/2 teaspoon of red pepper flakes. After about 30 seconds of stirring, add the tomato flesh. You'll hear a big sizzle. I love that sound. Add a good couple of pinches of salt, and give it a big stir. The salt and heat will work together to pull the juice out of the tomatoes and break down the flesh. Let that cook for about ten minutes, or until the tomatoes are really soft and there is lots of juice.



And now comes the "secret" ingredient: Roasted red (or yellow or orange) pepper!

I saw this idea when I was searching for ideas online. Bobby Flay's sauce used the red pepper, and I thought it might be really good. Whew, was it ever! I can't really describe what the peppers did for this sauce. I suppose they brought some sweetness, but also some earthiness. The acidity of the tomatoes seemed to be somewhat tempered. I don't think, had I not made the sauce myself, that I could have put my finger on what was so different, but man, it is addictive. I would eat this sauce with anything. Even with a spoon.

So anyway, just toss in the chopped flesh of one roasted red (or yellow) pepper. I used some from a jar in the pantry the first time, but I ran out and decided to roast my own this time around. It's easy!









After about 5 minutes more, add the juice of the tomatoes. Yes, you're going to cook a lot of that liquid out, but you want all the flavor, and it would be a crime to waste it.

Let the sauce cook down until it is about the consistency of a chunky spaghetti sauce. It shouldn't take more than an hour of heavy simmering. Your house will smell so good.


Now, get the eggplant ready. There are a few steps here, but they are all easy, so get ready.

You can either peel your eggplant or not. It's a personal choice. Some people love the skin. I think it totally ruins the dish. I find that it gets rubbery and unpleasant, and peeling is not hard, so why leave it? But that's up to you. If you decide to peel it, just cut off the top and bottom, then use a vegetable peeler to remove long strips of skin from top to bottom.

Slice the eggplant into approximately half-inch thick disks. Set a cooling rack over a sheet pan, and lay all the slices out on the rack. Liberally sprinkle each slice with Kosher salt, then turn each slice over and salt the second side, as well. Now you can walk away for about an hour. The salt will pull a lot of liquid from the eggplant. This solves two problems:  the liquid is where eggplant's bitterness resides. Pull it out, you remove the bitterness. Also, you don't want to go to all the trouble of preparing eggplant Parmesan just to pull a soggy mess out of the oven, now do you? Don't skip the salting!


So when you come back to the eggplant, you will find big drops of liquid on top of the slices, and lots of liquid in the sheet pan underneath. Lay a double thickness of paper towel on the counter, and lift the eggplant slices up (you'll want to tip them to drain into the sheet pan--there's really a LOT of liquid there!) and onto the paper towel. Lay another double thickness of paper towel over the slices and press down. You'll remove even more liquid this way. And don't worry about the extra salt.  There is so much liquid that the salt pretty much dissolves into it and is washed away when the liquid is drained.

Now the eggplant is ready to use. Okay, I'm going old school here. There are countless new ways to prepare eggplant Parmesan for the health conscious. I respect that. But if I am trying something that I am not sure I am going to like, I am going to do it the way that has made the Italians cherish it for centuries. I am frying the eggplant.

I hate frying. I really do. It makes such a mess, and in the case of most fried foods, I never really feel good after eating it. I always need to take a shower after frying something, because I am pretty much an oil slick. Seriously, keep the seals and penguins away from me. It's gross. But this is just shallow pan-frying, not deep-frying. It'll still make a bit of a mess, but not much. And it doesn't come out heavy like deep-frying. It comes out crisp, it seals in the juice, and it looks just lovely.

So get a couple of shallow baking dishes out, as well as a plastic bag. Put a bit of flour in the bag, then whisk several eggs in one baking dish, and put some bread crumbs, preferably the miracle panko crumbs, into the other dish. Season each slice of eggplant with pepper, then drop a few of them into the bag of flour. Hold the top closed, and shake the bag a few times, until the eggplant is completely coated with flour. You could just dredge the eggplant in a third dish of flour, but I find that shaking it coats without over-coating, avoiding a gummy mess. From there, dip each slice in the egg, turning to coat completely, and then the bread crumbs, pressing to help them adhere. Carefully lay each slice back onto the cooling rack. Giving it a bit of time to dry on the rack will help the coating to adhere and remain on the eggplant.



Once all the slices are coated, get a big skillet out and pour in some olive oil. You will want to cover the bottom, maybe 1/4 inch deep. Heat the pan for a few minutes, until the oil is shimmering, but not quite smoking. Olive oil will burn if it gets too hot, so keep an eye on it.  But don't make the mistake of trying to use it before it is really hot, either. The best way to keep oil from saturating what you are cooking in it, is to make sure it is hot when you put the food in. Oh dear. Getting into science type stuff. Trust me, I saw something about this on Good Eats. It's true. Or don't trust me, and just read about it here.



So when the oil is really hot, carefully lay some of the eggplant slices in the pan. There should be a good sizzle as the moisture in the eggplant meets the oil. Don't crowd the slices in, but leave at least an inch between slices, so as to avoid cooling the oil. It should take a couple of minutes per side, but if you have hot spots like me, some pieces will get done before others. Just make sure that the breading is golden brown and gorgeous before you turn the slices over. Let me drive this in a little more:  Beige is not your friend.  Beige is bland. Beige is soggy. So don't stop at beige. You want golden brown, emphasis on brown. Tongs work well here for flipping. You can gently squeeze the eggplant around the sides, and turn it over, avoiding a loss of breading. Once each slice is browned, remove it back to the cooling rack and replace with a new slice, until all the eggplant is done.



Finally, it's time to start assembling. Preheat the oven to 425. Grate some mozzarella cheese (I prefer the low moisture Kraft type of mozzarella here, as fresh tends to add a lot of moisture as it melts, but some people use fresh mozzarella in Parmesan dishes--it's another personal choice), and have a block of Parmesan ready. Spread some sauce in the bottom of a baking dish--Pyrex works well here--enough to cover the bottom well. Lay in enough slices of eggplant to fill the bottom of the dish, then cover them with more sauce. Grate some Parmesan over the eggplant, then sprinkle some mozzarella cheese over the whole layer. It's kind of like building lasagna, except no ricotta and eggplant replaces the noodles. Lay down another layer of eggplant. This time, you don't want to cover the slices with sauce. Just kind of dollop the sauce onto each slice, and let it drip down in a few places. But don't cover it, because you want to retain some of the wonderful crunchiness of the breading. Plus, it just looks so much prettier this way! Follow up with the cheeses, but again, go easy on the mozzarella. Let the breaded eggplant show through.



Once the whole dish is assembled, it's time to bake. The good news is, it won't take all that long. Everything is pretty much already cooked. You just want to give it a little time to come together. So 20-30 minutes later, you'll find a bubbly, melty dish of goodness ready to come out of the oven. It's a good idea to let it sit about 10 minutes before diving in, though. For one thing, the sauce is HOT. And for another, it just needs to settle down and let the cheese set a little to be at its best.

I used a little extra cheese this time, since it would be my kids' first time trying it.  They needed the extra cheese to cancel out the fear of eggplant.
Of course, you can make this ahead and store in the fridge or freezer. Just let it thaw, and let it sit at room temp for an hour or so before you put it in the oven. This ensures that the outside won't burn before the inside is warm enough to enjoy.

Chicken Parmesan is made by pretty much the same process, except you bread and fry thinly pounded slices of chicken breast instead of eggplant. See the printable recipe for the details.  Tonight, I used some zucchini slices along with the eggplant. It was great!  And it is a great way to use the larger zucchini that seem to be coming out of everyone's ears this time of year.  Any excuse to use this awesome new sauce that I've discovered!

But really, you should try Eggplant Parmesan. The eggplant, though it often turns mushy when cooked in other preparations, sort of gets a meaty texture here, much like a thick, cooked portabella mushroom cap. Oooohhhh...there's another idea.........

Enjoy!

No comments:

Post a Comment