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Issue #118: Late-Summer Eggplant Parmesan
Pancake Correction, Another Use for Fresh Tomato Sauce, Chatting with Dana Cowin
Hope everyone had a good Labor Day Weekend. We spent it doing very little besides hanging out with our lakehouse guest, Elia, and taking in the beauty and bounty of the Finger Lakes. In case you didn’t get my correction to last week’s recipe, note that you do indeed have to flip the cornmeal pancakes to cook the second side. Somehow the last two lines of the recipe got cut off in the email. This has been corrected in the online archive. I strongly encourage you to make these pancakes, as I know from social media several subscribers already have. We had them again on Saturday and they are quite delicious.
After making a giant tub of fresh tomato sauce using the recipe/technique I shared in Issue #116, I was left to figure out what to do with it. I froze some in two-cup bags to remind me of our summer at the lake sometime later in the dead of winter. But I still had some sauce left in the fridge.
As I recommended in that issue, with the addition of some fresh basil, grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, and a shot of good olive oil, the sauce is delicious on pasta. But after two meals of that pasta, I was looking around for something else.
A couple of eggplants we picked at the same India Creek Farm in Trumansburg, New York, where the tomatoes were from, caught my eye in the fridge. I decide to make a light, late-summer version of eggplant parmigiana. The result was lick-the-plate delicious.
What makes this eggplant parm distinct is that, rather than breaded and fried, the eggplant is grilled. The grilling adds a slight smokiness to the fresh tomato flavor of the sauce. It just tastes like summer.
To add a little texture, protein, and substance, I layered the grilled eggplant slices with slabs of fried tofu. Ithaca Soy is a local tofu maker whose dense, extra-firm blocks have a meatiness to them I like, especially when fried. Nate gave this eggplant parm his “you can make this again” rating, which is rare from him in general and doubly so for something based on vegetables.
For many, eggplant parm is a rich, heavy dish. I know Eric Kim’s recent recipe in the New York Times has been making the rounds. I’m not at all opposed to that style of eggplant parm. I’ve breaded and fried my fair share of eggplant slabs to slather with tomato sauce and top with tons of cheese.
The summer before college, when I was a seasonal worker in the records management division of the electric utility Ontario Hydro, our offices were located in a mixed-use development in Toronto’s financial district called The Atrium on Bay. Hydro occupied most of the floors of the office building, the multi-storied atrium of which opened up onto the shops below. There wasn’t much going on down there in those shops, but there was an outpost of the sleek, black, Italianate eatery Bersani & Carlevale, whose salads, sandwiches, espressos and sweets were worth spending a disproportionate amount of my Hydro income on for lunch (#foreshadowing). My favorite splurge? Their eggplant parm sandwich.
The late Michael Carlevale brought an unabashed sophistication and snobbery to Toronto’s dining scene in the 1980s. His signature restaurant, Pronto, was a shoulder-padded pantheon to pasta. At the more casual Bersani & Carlevale, the eggplant for the parm was sliced lengthwise and paper thin. Each sheet was breaded with fine crumbs and fried until almost crisp—not greasy at all. The sandwich was made on crusty, airy Italian bread popularized by bakeries in Toronto’s large Italian community and available at every grocery store in the city, where they were sold in white paper bags with red and green printing on them. The thinly sliced and fried eggplant was piled high like a NY pastrami sandwich, slathered with tomato sauce and topped with just the right amount of mozzarella, melted in a small counter-top oven. The sandwich was so mouthwateringly memorable that I am salivating just thinking about it.
This eggplant parm is not that.
But before you go get all upset and “recipe, please” me, note that this lighter, more seasonal version is much less effortful and caloric. As you know, I have nothing against work in the kitchen, and I certainly do not shy away from frying (see fried chicken). But on a hot August eve, I’d rather limit the time I’m standing over a pan of hot oil.
I should acknowledge that the first person to make a grilled eggplant parmesan for me years and years ago was my sister, Leslie, who is a grill master in her own right. Years later I hosted a cooking demo with pizza legend Chris Bianco, who made an eggplant parm simply by long-roasting slices of eggplant with his own, special canned tomatoes on large sheet pans, which he then piled into a baking dish, covered with cheese, and baked until gooey. It was a revelation. This recipe is somewhere between the two.
I’ll note that the fresh tomato sauce, eggplant, and maybe even the tofu and cheese throw off some liquid, which puddles and simmers in the baking dish. Don’t despair. I like to spoon this extra sauce over the eggplant when I serve it and then use crusty bread to wipe the dish clean.
You can make this eggplant parm any time of the year. You can roast the slices of eggplant if you don’t have access to a grill. But when tomatoes, eggplants, and basil are at their prime, and the grill has been seasoned with a summer’s worth of barbecue, it’s extra special.
RECIPE: Summery Grilled Eggplant Parmesan
(Serves 2 to 4)
1 or 2 firm eggplants, of any variety (about 1 pound total)
Extra-virgin olive oil, not your best
Freshly ground black pepper
½ pound block firm or extra-firm tofu (optional)
2 cups fresh tomato sauce (see recipe), or any other favorite sauce
8 to 16 leaves fresh basil
1 ounce or more grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
2 ounces or more grated mozzarella
Heat an outdoor grill until quite hot. Alternately you can use an indoor grill pan (if you have a good hood over your stove) or preheat the oven to 425°F. Slice the eggplant crosswise into even disks, about 3/4” to 1” thick. You should have at least 8 disks. Lay the eggplant out on a tray. Brush both sides generously with olive oil and season with salt and pepper.
Grill the eggplant until nicely marked and almost cooked through, about 15 minutes, depending on how hot your grill is and how thick and dense the eggplant is. The flesh should be soft when poked with the tip of a knife. I like to keep the cover of the barbecue closed so the eggplant roasts and grills at the same time. Watch it pretty closely. You don’t want it totally charred. If roasting in the oven, set the tray with the eggplant in an even layer into the preheated oven and cook until browned and soft, about 20 minutes. Set the eggplant aside and let cool so you can handle it.
Meanwhile, if using the tofu, slice the block into four equal slabs. Lay on paper towel and pat dry. Heat a medium sauté pan, preferably well-seasoned cast iron or nonstick, over high heat. Pour in a slick of olive oil to cover the bottom and when hot, add the tofu slices. Once they start to sizzle, reduce the heat slightly and let cook until the underside is nicely browned, 7 or 8 minutes. Flip, watching out for splatters when the moisture in the second side hits the oil, and continue cooking until the second side is browned, another 5 minutes or so. Transfer to a clean piece of paper towel to drain, season with some salt and pepper, and cool.
To assemble the dish, preheat the oven to 350°F. Into a small round or square baking dish, big enough to fit four stacks of eggplant without too much extra room, place a couple of spoonfuls of the tomato sauce and spread it around the bottom. Lay four disks of the grilled eggplant on the sauce. Spoon some sauce on the eggplant and lay a leaf or two of the fresh basil on top, depending on how big the leaves are. Spoon some grated Parmigiano on top of that and a just a little mozzarella. Top with a slice of fried tofu, if using, another spoonful of sauce more basil and some more cheese. Place a second slice of eggplant on that, another spoon of sauce, spreading any left around the dish, and top with the bulk of your mozzarella and any remaining Parmigiano.
Set the dish in the preheated oven and bake for 30 to 40 minutes, until the cheese has nicely melted and browned and the sauce is bubbly. Garnish with more fresh basil and serve warm with crusty bread to soak up the extra sauce.
A Few Notes about 🍆
(Despite the double-entendres and excitement over a few recent revealing social media posts from some talented, gay, thirst-trappy cookbook authors, I mean that eggplant emoji above to represent eggplant, nothing more.)
I use whichever eggplants look freshest to me, standard-issue, dark aubergines or the lighter, more bulbous Italian variety (sometimes called Sicilian). Use the firmest you can find. I am not generally an eggplant salter. Recipes always tell you to slice and salt the eggplant, let it sit, and wipe off any liquid that’s drawn out to remove bitterness. I don’t know if it is a fault of mine or the eggplant’s, but I can’t discern any noticeable difference, especially not in a slice that will be grilled, sauced, roasted, and covered in cheese, such as those in this recipe. I also don’t generally peel eggplant, as I like the flavor and texture of the peel. Those light-purple Italian eggplants have a thinner skin. When grilling, it’s important to keep the peel on because otherwise by the time the eggplant flesh is cooked through the slice will lose its integrity.
What’s Burning This Week
A new episode of my What’s Burning podcast dropped today with Dana Cowin, former editor-in-chief of Food & Wine magazine, who has created a media brand to support women’s leadership in the hospitality industry called Speaking Broadly. Dana, who is an old friend, has her own podcast and zine under the Speaking Broadly banner. She is always insightful and opinionated. You won’t want to miss our conversation. What’s Burning is produced by the Jewish National Fund USA and the Galilee Culinary Institute’s Rosenfeld School of Cuilinary Arts.
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