Experiments in Eggplant Parmesan

When I was a kid, I hated eggplant. I suspect this is because my first encounter with the fruit was a slimy, over-grilled, cold slab, drowned in acrid balsamic vinegar and smoky olive oil and black pepper, all flavors too intense for my undeveloped four year old palate.

As befit my age, I took a decidedly childish approach to this encounter: this eggplant was gross, so therefore all eggplant was gross. And over the next few years, I encountered several other dishes which, due to my inexperience, or to the largely experimental nature of my parents’ cooking, only underscored my initial impression. As a child, I believed all eggplant to be consistent in its sliminess and its squishy, unpleasant texture, and it quickly joined a small but committed list of “despised foods” I curated as a kid.

As an adult, I know now that these childhood impressions were created by a very small set of data. I had never tried eggplant in some of the applications that I now most enjoy. When I was older and tried baba ghanoush, melitzanosalata, and eggplant parmesan, I discovered that eggplant, like every other ingredient, can be absolutely delightful if prepared well.

This recipe for eggplant parmesan is an evolving thing, and it also has some concessions to the COVID-19 quarantine: use whatever cheese you have on hand. And while the recipe calls for panko out of personal preference, I have listed some alternatives below. This recipe assumes you’ll be using a 9×13 inch baking pan, but a 9×9 inch pan will work too; just make three layers of eggplant instead of two, and split your parmesan and tomato sauce layers accordingly.

To make eggplant parmesan, you will need the following ingredients and equipment:

  • Two pounds of eggplant
  • Six to eight ounces panko breadcrumbs
  • 24 ounces tomato sauce (homemade or store bought)
  • Four ounces shredded or crumbled parmesan cheese, if available
  • Six ounces of your favorite melting cheese, shredded
  • Three eggs
  • 1/3 Cup all-purpose flour
  • Olive oil as needed, for frying
  • A baking dish
  • Three plates
  • A sauté pan
  • A chef’s knife
  • A cutting board
  • A wooden spoon
  • A metal spatula or flipper
  • Measuring cups

Procedure:

Slice the eggplant into circular medallions approximately 1 centimeter thick. Arrange the three plates on a counter or tabletop near your stovetop. Put the flour on the first plate. Beat the eggs and pour them onto the second plate. Put the panko on the third plate.

In the sauté pan, heat 3-5 tablespoons of olive oil over low-medium heat. Watch the oil – if it starts smoking, lower the heat.

Take your tomato sauce and add about a half cup to the bottom of your baking dish. Spread the sauce around with a spoon or spatula, covering the bottom of the pan.

Pick up an eggplant medallion, put it on the first plate and rub it in the flour. Then flip it over until you have covered both slides of the medallion with flour (don’t worry about the eggplant skin). Pick up the floured medallion and move it to the second plate with the egg. Gently move the medallion around the plate, soaking the immersed side in egg, then flip the medallion over and soak the other side. Once both sides of the floured medallion are covered in egg, pick it up and drop it on the third plate with your panko. Press the medallion gently into the panko, then flip it over and repeat the process on the other side. Both sides of the battered medallion should now be covered in breadcrumbs.

Repeat this process with several more medallions until you have enough to fill the bottom of your sauté pan, then gently place the battered and crumbed medallions into the pan (mind your fingers!). The oil should be hot enough that the medallions immediately start to sizzle; if your oil is too cool, the eggplant medallions will cook too slowly and become mushy. Try a test medallion if you’re not sure your oil is at the right temperature. Fry your medallions for 2-3 minutes on each side. The panko should become crispy and golden brown, and the egg should be fully cooked.

While you are frying your medallions in the sauté pan, flour, batter, and crumb your next batch of medallions, so that they’re ready to pop in the pan the moment your first batch emerges.

Once the first batch of eggplant medallions are done frying, place them directly in your baking pan, making a single layer. Don’t worry about any small gaps, just try to arrange the medallions so that they cover as much surface area as possible. You’ll have to cook a few batches of medallions in order to cover the bottom of the pan. Once the pan is covered, pour one-half of the remaining tomato sauce over the eggplant, and sprinkle half of the parmesan cheese on top. Preheat your oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit/160 degrees Celsius.

Continue the battering and frying process into you have cooked enough eggplant to make at least two full layers in your baking pan (three layers if you’re using a smaller pan). Cover the eggplant medallions with the rest of the tomato sauce, then sprinkle your chosen melty cheese liberally on top. Finally, cover the whole thing with the rest of the parmesan cheese.

Bake in your oven for 15-20 minutes, or until the cheese is melted and bubbly. Allow to sit for 5 minutes before serving.

Cooking Notes:

It’s really a matter of personal preference, but I vastly prefer panko to other breadcrumbs when making eggplant parmesan. The crumbs are larger than Italian-style breadcrumbs, and provide a crunchier, more pleasing texture. Panko crumbs are also more resilient when fried; they don’t become heavy or mealy.

If like me your quarantine kitchen isn’t fully stocked, then you can get away with any other type of unflavored or garlic-flavored breadcrumb with this recipe. You can even make your own breadcrumbs if you have some leftover sourdough, wheat, or white bread lying around your kitchen: toast the bread gently but repeatedly on a medium setting until it is dry all the way through, then blitz the bread in a food processor. If desired, you can add seasoning (I prefer garlic powder and oregano).

This recipe makes 6-8 servings. Eggplant parmesan reheats well, and can be stored in the fridge for up to four days after cooking.

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