Thursday, January 3, 2013

Eggplant Parmesan+ Mozzarella

When out to dinner, I am usually wary of Eggplant Parmesan, due to its tendency to be over-breaded, under-seasoned, and deep fried. The problem is, if it is not fried and breaded enough it gets soggy and tasteless.  In honor of my father's love for the dish (and my desire to conquer the eggplant conundrum) I have been keeping my eye out for a recipe that fits my  picky requirements as well as passes the taste test. 

Guess what. I found one - in the latest copy of Fine Cooking's CookFresh, which is hands-down my favorite food magazine. With a bit of adaptation it turned out great; my dad won't stop talking about it. I served it with a side of pasta, but I personally skipped the noodles and thought it was perfect on its own. 

Serves 4

Eggplant Parmesan (with Mozzarella)

Adapted from Fine Cooking's CookFresh

1 medium globe eggplant (about 1 lb)
~ 1 C flour (I used whole wheat)
2 eggs
3 or 4 slices of hearty bread, such as oatmeal (bread-ends are great!)
1 to 1 1/2 tsp. dried thyme
One batch tomato sauce (recipe follows) or about 3 C prepared sauce
8 to 10 fresh basil leaves
5 oz. fresh Mozzarella, thinly sliced
3/4 C freshly grated Parmesan

First, cut the eggplant crosswise into 1/4-inch disks. Line a plate with paper towels and lay out a single layer of eggplant slices on top. Sprinkle them generously with salt, cover with another layer of paper towels, and repeat until all of the eggplant is salted. Let the eggplant rest for about 20 minutes. This releases the "juices" and keeps it from getting too soggy or dense.

Meanwhile, place the bread in a food processor and grate it into as finely as possible. The original recipe called for "fine, dry breadcrumbs", but I liked my slightly imperfect, not-quite-fine, fresh version. 

Set out three wide, shallow bowls. Put the breadcrumbs in one, the flour in another, and whisk the eggs in the last one. Line two baking sheets with paper towels. Take one eggplant slice, press both sides into the flour, dip it in the egg (allowing excess to drip off), and coat each side in breadcrumbs by pressing it into the bowl. Set it on one of the cookie sheets and repeat until all of the eggplant is breaded.

Heat the largest skillet you have over medium to medium-high heat and pour in a layer of olive oil. This is where preference comes in: I, of course, used a little oil as possible - just enough to coat the bottom, basically. The recipe, on the other hand, said to pour enough oil into the pan to create a layer about 1/2 inch thick. Both ways and anywhere in between work fine.

When the oil is hot enough that a crumb sizzles when tossed in, arrange as many eggplant slices as possible in a single layer. Cook for about a minute then flip them. You want them to be nicely crisped and golden to dark brown. Drain them on the other cookie sheet, repeating in batches until all of the eggplant is cooked.

Now, finally, it's time to assemble. Get out a baking dish - really, whatever size you'd like. The recipe called for a 9 by 13, but I chose a tall, round, about 8-inch dish. If you have a large, shallow dish, you will probably have about three layers. If you have a deeper, smaller dish like mine then you will have four or five. Whichever type of dish you use, start by placing one layer of eggplant slices on the bottom of the dish. Top the eggplant with a proportional amount (1/3 , 1/5, etc.) of the tomato sauce, basil leaves, Mozzarella slices, and Parmesan - in that order. Repeat until everything is used up, ending with the cheeses.

Bake it at 425 for about 25 to 30 minutes. The time will vary based on the dish dimensions, but what really matters is that the cheese is melted and beginning to brown, and the sauce is bubbling around the edges. Let it cool for a while, then serve.

Basic Tomato Sauce

A hopelessly mixed-up combination of my ideas and bunches of other recipes. Safe to call it mine.

Makes about 3 cups. Double, triple, and halve to your heart's content

1/4 C chopped onion
1/4 C sliced carrot (about 2 medium carrots) 
2 or 3 cloves of garlic, smashed
~1/2 tsp each dried thyme and oregano
One 28 oz can peeled tomatoes

Heat about 2 tsp. olive oil in a sauce pan over medium heat. Add the carrots, onion, and garlic. Cook, stirring often, for about 5 minutes. Add the herbs, a few pinches of salt, and a dash or two of black pepper. Cook for another few minutes, until the herbs are toasty and aromatic and the vegetables are beginning to brown.

Add the tomatoes with their sauce, stir, and bring to a boil. Let it simmer for about 15 minutes, allowing it to thicken a bit - don't boil off too much liquid though!

Remove the sauce from the heat and puree it, either with an immersion blender, or in a food processor or blender. Puree of all of the vegetable and tomato chunks, leaving a smooth, flavorful sauce. 

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