If you were to ask any of my friends or past clients about my specialty, they would quickly inform you that it’s risotto. However, it wasn’t always so. Long before my professional career and formal training, I was a cook that depended on what I learned as a child. The rich Italian-American cooking of my family was my strong suit and, more than anything else, it was my grandmother’s Eggplant Parmigiana that was requested over and over again. It’s serious comfort food and one of those dishes that incites applause and smiles all around.
The secret behind this dish is more in the preparation and attention to details than anything else. It starts with the care taken when preparing and dredging the eggplant. The breadcrumbs should be fresh and freshly seasoned by your own hand. Next, the oil should be light olive oil at a medium temperature because extra virgin burns over anything other than a low flame.
And speaking of the flame, the herbs you add to the breadcrumbs will not burn in this recipe (as they do when most people fry) because the flame stays at a consistent medium and the eggplant is only in the pan long enough to slightly brown. I fondly remember my grandmother saying, “No, no, no, you don’t cook the eggplant in the oil. You cook it in the oven. The oil is only to brown the bread crumbs.” Lastly, the fried eggplant should be dried before being added to the baking dish so that the crust is firm and crisp.
As for wine, a household favorite is Barbera d’Alba, which tends to counter the rich and vibrant flavors of the eggplant parm with its own richness and vibrant acidity. Keep in mind that, although this is a dish centered around a vegetable, it is still a formidable dish that will hold up to any number of big red wines. (see the bottom of this article for a favorite Barbera d’Alba that pairs perfectly with this recipe)
- 2 medium-size eggplants
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 2 cups flour
- 4 eggs
- 2 tsp dried oregano
- 2 tsp dried basil
- 1 tsp garlic granules
- 2 cups fresh breadcrumbs (go to a local bakery for these if not available in your supermarket)
- 1/2 tsp cracked pepper
- 1/2 tsp salt
- Light olive oil (enough for frying; be prepared to change the oil at least once)
- 8 ounces of Parmigiano Reggiano (grated)
- 16 ounces of mozzarella (shredded)
- 6 cups tomato sauce (a simply tomato sauce will do; I like to go for a chunky style with a little basil)
Peel and slice the eggplant. (Each slice should be about 1/8 of an inch.) Lay the slices out on a rack or sheet pan lined with paper towels and sprinkle heavily with salt. Then flip the slices and sprinkle the other side with salt as well. Allow the eggplant to sit like this for one hour. The salt will pull bitter juices out of the eggplant. When one hour has passed, quickly rinse each slice of eggplant under cold water and set out on a towel to dry.
To prepare your dredging station, set up a plate, followed by a bowl, followed by another plate. On the first plate, place your two cups of flour. In the bowl, crack four eggs and whip them to consistency. In a small mixing bowl, pour two cups of breadcrumbs, two tsp dried oregano, two tsp dried basil, one tsp garlic granules, a 1/2 tsp cracked pepper and a 1/2 tsp salt. Mix the contents of the bowl together and pour onto the last plate.
Preheat your oven to 325 F.
To dredge, set up a rack for the breaded eggplant to rest on before being fried. Begin the dredging process by lightly seasoning each piece of eggplant with salt and pepper. Then dip a piece of eggplant into the flour and coat completely. Shake off any loose flour and drop the eggplant slice into the eggs. Then, using a fork, lift the eggplant from the eggs and allow any excess egg to drip off. Now place into the breadcrumbs and coat completely. When coated, move the slice of eggplant to the rack. Do this for all slices of eggplant.
In a pan (I like to use a large cast-iron pan), pour enough light olive oil into the pan to cover the entire bottom with about 1/8 inch of oil. Bring the flame up to medium-low and allow the olive oil to come up in temperature.
Near your frying oil, set up the following: a plate or sheet pan lined with paper towel; a glass Pyrex, CorningWare or chafing dish for the eggplant, the shredded mozzarella and the grated Parmigiano Reggiano, and the sauce in a pot over a low flame. Ladle a small amount of sauce into the bottom of the dish and spread it out across the entire bottom to create a light layer of sauce.
Begin to fry the eggplant by adding it to the fry oil (do not overcrowd the pan), allow the first side to brown lightly and then flip the eggplant. (Like my grandmother said, the eggplant cooks in the oven.) Once the second side is lightly browned, move the eggplant to a towel to drain. Add more eggplant to the fry oil to continue the process. Once the pieces on the towel are drained of any excess oil, move them to the Pyrex or chafing dish, cover with a large pinch of grated Parmigiano Reggiano, then a large pinch of mozzarella and a small ladle of sauce. Continue this process until all the eggplant has been fried, but remember that you will likely need to change out the oil in your pan at least once during this process.
The end result should be neatly stacked pieces of eggplant, three to four pieces high, with both cheeses and a small ladle of sauce between each stack. Once you have assembled all stacks, add a generous sprinkle of mozzarella across the top and place in the oven for 45 minutes.
Remove from the oven when done, let cool for 10-15 minutes and then serve family-style.
Now on to the wine pairing.
Why Barbera? Barbera is a high acidity grape that use to be planted in the lesser exposed or lower altitude positions in the vineyard. Essentially it was the second child to most growers Nebbiolo, and the wine they would drink for any easy quaff. However, due to the hard work and visionary foresight of a number of today’s growers, Barbera has now seen a massive surge in popularity. These growers are giving the vine the locations and attention they deserve, and treating it as a noble variety in the winery as well. The result is a new tier of fine wine in Piedmont, the top shelf Barbera, which is still a remarkable deal compared to Barolo and Barbaresco.
The intense fruit and elevated acidity of Barbera cuts right through the richness of Eggplant Parmigiana. It accentuates the tomato flavors in the sauce and adds an attractive woodsy character that’s to die for. While the Giacomo Conterno Cerretta is one of the most expensive examples out there, you should also look to Vajra, Bartolo Mascarello, Roagna, and Vietti for more affordable, yet just as enjoyable, Barbera.
2013 Giacomo Conterno Barbera d’Alba Cerretta – The 2013 comes across as more lifted and refined than past vintages, with soaring dark fruit, floral tones, minerals and a hint of orange peel on the nose. Vibrant with intense red fruit and minerals on the palate–tense yet full of energy. It will be interesting to taste this again in a year or two, to see how it may evolve in the bottle. Today, it is highly enjoyable on it’s energy and verve. (93 points) Find it @Morrell
A recipe and wine pairing by Eric Guido