How to Make Italian-Style Eggplant Parmesan
Having grown up in an Italian neighborhood in Brooklyn, back when kids still played stickball in the streets and old ladies spent their days watching the cars go by while resting on pillows in the windowsill, I have a soft spot for Italian-American dishes. That includes the stateside version of eggplant parm, which is made with breaded and fried slices of eggplant. Kenji's already done a pretty exhaustive and awesome recipe for that style of the dish. That's a good thing, at least for me, because I actually have an even softer spot, and it's for the Italian style of eggplant parm, which is breading-free.
Of course, even within Italy, there are many variations on this dish (I've seen one with Swiss cheese!), but I'm wedded to the one I learned while living and working on a farm several years ago. The farm, called Cascina Piola, is in Piedmont, Italy, the northwestern region that is clearly not the birthplace of this very southern Italian dish. But Raffaella, who taught me this method and runs the farm with her husband, Piero, is originally from Naples, and therefore has what I'd consider a direct line on knowing what's up with eggplant parm.
What I love about her version is it's all about the sweetness of the fried eggplant, tomato sauce, and mozzarella, and their soft, melting textures. Where the American one has a breaded heft that soaks up the sauce, this one is juicier and smoother all the way through.
Though the mantra may be cliché at this point, the success of a dish this simple lies largely in the quality of the ingredients. In my experience, good summer eggplant doesn't require all of the contortions often prescribed for the vegetable. I routinely skip the pre-salting, for instance. And, while I'm excited to try the cooking method Kenji uses in his recipe, I'll save it for when eggplant season ends and I'm stuck with lesser specimens. Right now, at the end of August, I know this dish is going to be great even without the extra steps.
Here's the basic process:
I start by slicing the eggplant about a quarter inch thick. I did it in rounds here, but you could also go lengthwise. Then I shallow-fry the slices in vegetable oil until they're browned on both sides. The eggplant will soak up the oil, so you'll have to top it up between batches.
Once these have browned, I transfer them to paper towels to drain them of excess oil. (I used two types of eggplant here, a mixture of the common purple Italian variety and a variegated one, with a mixed light-purple and white skin. Feel free to experiment with varieties, or just stick with the classic.)
Then, in a baking dish, I start layering the ingredients. A lot of recipes call for low-moisture mozzarella when the cheese is going to be melted, because it dumps less water than fresh mozzarella. I gleefully break that rule. I love high-quality wet mozzarella. I love how it melts, and I love its pristine, milky flavor. I could give a rat's ass about the extra water it releases; the trade-off for me is well worth it. (Trouble finding milky mozz? Read Kenji's piece on how to restore mozzarella balls to their former glory.)
For each layer, I put down the rounds of fried eggplant and top them with a thin layer of tomato sauce. This can be a simple sauce of puréed canned tomatoes with salt and olive oil, or a more elaborate one, like my fresh tomato sauce. Then I lay shredded fresh mozzarella on top of that.
A little torn fresh oregano on each layer never hurt anything. Basil would work well, too.
Some will note at this point that there's no Parmigiano-Reggiano in my eggplant parm. A lot of recipes, including Italian ones, call for it in this dish, but I consider it optional. First, because the name "eggplant Parmigiana" has nothing to do with the city of Parma (and possibly nothing to do with the famous aged cheese made there). As Kenji explained in his eggplant parm article, the origins of the name are murky, but even if the exact etymology is unresolved, there's no reason to conclude that the dish requires Parmesan just because of its name.
Anyway, I like Parmigiano-Reggiano a lot (like, a lot, a lot), but the truth is that all the things that I love about this version of the dish—the silky, sweet eggplant; the fruity tomato sauce; the fragrant herbs; the milky fresh mozzarella—have very little to do with the salty, aged flavor of Parmesan. I kind of prefer how clean and sweet and fresh this tastes without the grated cheese. Still, if you want it, feel free to add it to each layer. It won't be bad, that's for sure.
After that, it's just a matter of repeating until your ingredients are used up and the baking dish is full.
Here's a side view. Yum.
I leave the herbs off the top layer, since they're likely to burn in the hot oven.
Once it's baked, which takes about 20 minutes at 400°F (200°C), I put some fresh herbs on top.
It will initially look very wet when it comes out of the oven. But don't fret: Give it 10 minutes to rest, and nearly all of those extra juices will be reabsorbed by the eggplant.