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Don’t Forget About Eggplant

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Yes, it’s August and my gardens are going crazy. So crazy that if I’m not begging visitors to take home a basket of fresh veggies, then I am loading up my car to take my bounty to town. Besides friends and family, my recipients include my coworkers, accountant, insurance agent, the postal ladies and anyone else with whom I do general business.

One of my favorite drop-offs is an antique shop downtown. The owner is not only an old friend, but I love the way her eyes light up when I invite her outside to indulge in a veritable farmer’s market in my trunk. She delights over the tons of tomatoes, plethora of peppers, zucchini, cucumbers and melons, but her main focus is on the elegant eggplant, reclining unpretentiously next to the bell peppers. The plump fruit’s opaline purples and lavenders make the humble statement “Let’s go on a cooking adventure together—one you’ll never forget.”

And my friend gets it. She always tells me how much she looks forward to my gifts, particularly the eggplant, as it has become a rite of summer for her to prepare piles of eggplant for her favorite dish, Eggplant Parmesan. She does all the prep and freezes the whole dish for an extended summer throughout the year. 

“Whaaat?” you might say, if you’ve never tried cooking with eggplant. I find it a bit discouraging when I offer and someone truly asks, “But what do you do with it?” Well, I could probably write a cookbook with about 900 recipes but I will offer up just one of my most amazing ones here.

Eggplant Parmigiana
This is not a quick and simple recipe. This is one of those dishes that cannot be skimped on, if you want it to turn out died-and-gone-to-heaven good. Although it is a little extra work, it is worth every step, beginning with the most important part of this divine dish—the sauce. And really, a vegetable as beautiful and sublime as the eggplant deserves the regal treatment.

I make my own tomato sauce with tomatoes from my garden, by just cooking them down and reducing the liquid. You can peel them ahead of time by blanching or just whirl them in the food processor to chop those peels down to an unnoticeable size. Of course, the sauce can be made ahead, and sometimes I just pull a container of leftover sauce out of the freezer. I begin with a healthy layer of extra virgin olive oil to sauté onions, bell and Italian long peppers, one or two hot peppers and a bulb of garlic. 

Next, I add the Italian herbs, fresh or dry, depending upon how motivated I am—basil, rosemary, oregano, parsley, thyme and savory. When the veggies are transparent, I toss in the tomatoes, about six cups of fresh, quartered, colander drained or frozen tomatoes. It only takes about 30 minutes to cook down. About halfway through, I pour in a goodly splash of red wine. This is a good time to taste and add salt and pepper. The thicker, the better on the sauce, but if it’s too chunky, I’ll give it a whirl with the immersion blender.

Some people salt the eggplant first to remove the water but I generally don’t bother with this step, as I’ve never found it to be necessary. I start with two medium-sized eggplant, fresh out of the garden, sliced on the thickest setting of my mandoline. Two eggs and about a cup of homemade, seasoned breadcrumbs will cover two medium, sliced eggplant. Some recipes still use the original method of frying the breaded eggplant. But since I am only half Italian, I bake it. It is definitely easier and the eggplant slices come out more uniformly done and crispy, with less chance of burning. The key here is to use plenty of olive oil on the baking sheet so that, as it bakes, the oil can be seen sizzling. It needs about 20 minutes at 400º and should be flipped once in the middle. I bake the end slices, too, for snacking on while assembling.

The golden-brown eggplant gets single-layered in the bottom of a 9×13” baking dish. Some like to put a layer of sauce on the bottom, but I like my eggplant less soggy. Besides, when they’re done this way, they can be picked up and eaten like a sandwich. I layer them like stacks instead of filling the dish, so that they are individual servings. Each slice gets just a dollop of sauce, so that the eggplant is not overpowered and the edges stay peeking out and crispy. A generous sprinkle of fresh grated Parmesan goes on each slice until the stacks are three high. The last eggplant on top gets a thick slice of mozzarella instead of Parmesan.

Back into the 400º oven they go for another 20 minutes, or until the cheese is melty and just beginning to brown in spots. The anticipation here is almost palpable, as I pull them from the oven and lay them on the chopping block. However, I do realize that, if allowed to cool just a bit, the flavors will have set and you won’t end of with dreaded cat-tongue. A chiffonade of fresh basil sprinkled on top at this point adds flavor as well as aesthetic appeal.

This is also a great recipe for my vegetarian friends and could even be prepared vegan with your choice of substitute eggs and cheese. My mom made this one time when my cousin came to visit and we all thought it hilarious that she assumed the whole time that she was eating chicken or some kind of meat. She was not vegan or vegetarian but the look on her face when we confessed after the meal was priceless. She actually said, “Whaaaat?” But then, naturally, she was hooked on eggplant for life.

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