Serious Eats: Recipes
French in a Flash: Eggplant Tian
An American in Paris
One thing I learned from the chefs at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris is that love and cooking are one and the same.
I'm reserving some of their "cook from your heart" maxims for a later column--actually, I'm not sure if I can print some of their kitchen-bedroom metaphors on Serious Eats--but suffice it to say that I began to regard meat doneness and vegetable brunoise with a certain lovelorn inner eye. If I was turning an especially stubborn potato, I sometimes wondered what had happened to our relationship, and felt as though I was about to be broken up with; I would dab a tear on my kitchen towel.
I have written before that my father is a creature of habit. He eats salmon almost every night of the week, but he always takes one night off: Sunday, when he invariably indulges in Eggplant Parmigiana from the corner pizzeria. In New York, the Eggplant Parmigiana is a "Napoleon" of heavy-breaded, deep fried rounds of eggplant, whose greasy crispness is soaked into oblivion by the sweet-tart, runny-chunky tomato sauce, glued together with oozing mozzarella. I think Sophie Dahl described it best in her novel as something that will inevitably make you fat--but both she and I think there is no better New York City comfort food.
Though I've often joined my father in his Sunday Eggplant Parmigiana, I've loved others as well--feta cheese Eggplant Parmigiana in Florida; Eggplant Parmigiana pizza in Penn Station. I fell into a rut by my early twenties. When I got off the plane in Rome my first time in Italy, I turned to my mother and said, "Tonight, I am finding some Roman Eggplant Parmigiana, and I'm eating it!"
An American in Rome
That night we went to a sidewalk terrace café. I was sweating anticipation into the summer heat. But when my eggplant arrived, I was speechless. Though it had been only a side dish on the menu, I figured it would be all I would eat. Instead, it was a simple cast iron round, perhaps the size of two hands cupped together. The eggplant was thin, arranged in a spiraling rosette from the base of the pot to its rim. The only cheese was a light and tasteful crown of Mozzarella and a peppering of Parmesan. Most shockingly, nothing about it was fried.
Though it resembled no Eggplant Parmigiana I had seen, I ventured a bite--and eggplant was sweet and tender, not like the flavorless cream between the breading on the New York version. The sauce was lighter, fresher, with summer thyme and basil. The cheese added just enough salt and softness. It all hung together perfectly, like an unlikely outfit assembled on the pages of Vogue. My Sunday night regular began to look like a rag doll next to a Pygmalion statue.
That summer, I was as lovelorn as I was frustrated with that stubborn potato at Le Cordon Bleu. I had been with my college boyfriend for three of the four years we would spend together, and it seemed that he, like that hunk of potato, was slipping through my fingers--and I was getting dangerously close to being stabbed by a rogue paring knife. I could neither see nor imagine anything better than him. But as I learned at Le Cordon Bleu, you can't make a great recipe from bad ingredients. And at its core, I suppose our relationship was rotten.
An American in London
I went back to Europe a few years later, single, to get my masters at Oxford in England. I had silently sworn off American Eggplant Parmigiana and men, having been disappointed recently by both. But love and dinner are strikingly similar. It wasn't long before getting back into the unfried delicacy of European Eggplant Parmigiana that I tried dating again. There was something more delicate about this one, more refined, more flavorful. He wasn't as big, or as flashy, as the American versions before him, but I loved him more, extolling to my friends and parents the subtle but important differences between him and the others. Mr. College had been the greatest thing in my little world, but Mr. English was the greatest thing in the whole wide world. I just had to be brave enough to leave my Sunday night pizzeria to find out. In love, and in cooking, it's always best never to get too comfortable.
This week's Eggplant Tian is my version of Eggplant Parmigiana, quilted together from versions that I've had in England, in Italy (with Mozzarella), and the South of France (with Gruyère). The eggplant is roasted here, instead of fried, which removes much of the water and adds that sweet, smoky char of a hot oven. Make it in the summer, when the tomatoes are sweet and the basil fragrant, to see how light, and surprising, Eggplant Parmigiana can be.