Oops, didn't mean to disappear this week...School has been keeping me busy. The composition class I'm taking involves a ton of reading (and writing...not surprisingly) and we're about to start our big project for the semester, designing the first unit for an integrated reading and writing course. It's always a challenge hitting this point in these courses: we've been digesting huge quantities of theory, and now we have to get down to the nitty-gritty, the nuts and bolts, and figure out how to make the theories we've adopted manifest in the classroom. It's a juggling act.
But unless you happen to have a thing for composition pedagogy, I'm sure that's less than fascinating for you. So hey, how about we talk about the cheesy, gooey, savoury, slightly crunchy, herby goodness that is eggplant parmesan? Jason and I made some a couple weeks ago, using his Noni's recipe. Well, sort of. As I've mentioned before, Noni's recipes are...inexact. They aren't chemistry, but alchemy, and I suspect that Noni herself was a kind of Philosopher's stone in the kitchen, turning ordinary ingredients into comfort food gold.
When Jason's mom recorded Noni's instructions, she tried to capture her voice, and it comes through -- here's the full text of the Eggplant Parmesan recipe:
Mudiga -- bread crumbs, parsley, cheese
Cut eggplant in half then slice. Salt generously and let sit about half hour, til it makes the water.
Squeeze out really good, then wash them really well. Then fry in hot oil (1/8 inch) til browned on either side. Layer: first sauce, then eggplant, then mudiga, sauce, etc. Top with a layer of sauce then cover and put in oven until ready to serve.
See what I mean? Virtually no exact measurements, no oven temperature or cooking time...just the basics. Perhaps more accurately, the essentials. Noni's definitely right about salting and draining the eggplant, which we did not cut in half, but sliced lengthwise into planks a little less than 1/2" thick. You will need 3 slices per serving, so keep that in mind when deciding how many eggplants to buy. The salt sucks a lot of excess water out of the eggplant, which makes it easier to fry and brown. Just be sure to rinse it, as Noni says, or the dish will be way too salty.
The one real change Jason and I made to the recipe was to coat the eggplant with the mudiga (the herbed bread crumb mixture.) To make the mudiga, we combined a couple of cups of bread cubes cut from very stale bread with a couple of tablespoons of parsley and parmesan, and pulsed it all in the food processor. It doesn't adhere perfectly, but that's ok.
Heat a thin layer of olive oil over medium to medium-high heat (a drop of water tossed in the pan should sizzle, but you don't want the crumbs to instantly scorch) then fry the eggplant slices in batches, making sure not to overcrowd the pan. (If a lot of crumbs start to fall off and blacken, take the pan off the heat, clean it out, and add fresh oil. We didn't end up needing to do this, but it's hard to get every crumb out when you remove each batch, so just keep it in mind.)
If you really, really love a particular store-bought tomato sauce, you can of course use it, but it's so simple to make your own at home, there's really no reason not to. Just sweat a little diced onion and garlic (I sometimes also include a little grated carrot and/or zucchini for added sweetness and body, but it's totally optional), then add a can of tomato sauce and simmer, seasoning with salt and pepper. That's really all there is to it. You can add a little basil, oregano, and parsley to taste, but if you're just making the sauce for the eggplant parmesan, I'd keep it simple in order to let the parsley flavor in the breadcrumbs shine through.
Assembly and Baking:
When the sauce and the eggplant are both ready, slice up the mozzarella, heat your oven to about 400 degrees, and start layering. Put down a dollop of sauce, an eggplant slice, more sauce, a slice of mozzarella, and grate a little parmesan. Repeat with two more slices. Some recipes construct eggplant parmesan more like a casserole -- layering eggplant and sauce like you would a lasagna. We prefer this method, because it allows each serving to brown around the edges. It's also a little more elegant, if you're going to be serving this to guests. Be sure to sprinkle more of the breadcrumb mixture and a little extra parmesan over the top of each serving, so it will crisp in the oven.
Everything is already cooked, so the eggplant parmesan doesn't need to spend a lot of time in the oven -- just enough for the cheese to melt, and everything to get piping hot. If you've assembled everything while it's still warm, you could even choose to just run it under the broiler. Before serving, top with a little more fresh parsley, for a nice fresh flavor.
Add a loaf of crusty bread and a bottle of wine, and you've got a perfect meal.