Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Aubergine Parmigiana (Some Assembly Required)

My love of eggplants is no secret. This recipe is one of my favorite ways of enjoying them; it also has a special place in my heart because cooking this dish led me to two very important realizations.

The first time I made eggplant parmigiana was when I was just starting to see cooking as something more than just boiling water or preheating the oven. I carefully prepared this dish and when I sat down and took a bite, it knocked my socks off. I was impressed with how delicious it was, but also by the fact that I had cooked this little plate of Heaven myself. Wow! I had never known I could do that!! I had never known this was so fun and rewarding! Eating my first home-made eggplant parmigiana taught me that not only could I cook, but I also loved it. Talk about a glorious start to my punk-housewifery!

The other thing I realized as I was stuffing my face with this glorious mess of melt-in-your-mouth veggies and cheese was that I could never be vegan. Vegetarian, maybe. But life without cheese?! Life without mozzarella, Brie, Jalsberg, goat cheese, Camembert, havarti, Gruyère? My French and Italian blood told me that would not be a life worth living. Don't get me wrong: I totally respect veganism and enjoy more than a few vegan dishes on a regular basis. But cheese is something I would never be able to give up. And a helping of eggplant parmigiana sealed the deal for good. My love affair with cheese will endure until my dying day.

There are many recipes for eggplant parmigiana out there. Some people think you should fry your eggplant, others swear by grilling. I side with the latter, not just out of concern about oil and fat, but simply because I prefer the texture. Some people also prefer to purée the tomato and onion sauce, but I like the chunky veggies bits. I leave those details to your discretion, but I find a thick sauce gives the dish a more rustic flair, which I just love. I also dig the crunch of the onion and the savory burst of tomatoes. If you want to have a smooth sauce, just pulse it with an immersion blender before layering the dish. Easy as π!

This recipe is loosely based on the one in "Jamie's Italy", and serves 4 as a vegetarian main dish, or 6 to 8 as a side-dish. It's to die for with lamb roast, but I like it just by itself, with some crusty bread to mop up the sauce and a glass of strong red wine (namely, some Dogajolo, because I'd drink that with everything Italian).

2 large eggplants
1 yellow onion, chopped
3 cloves of garlic, peeled and minced
2 tablespoons oregano
2 tablespoons Italian herbs
1 (24 ounce) can whole tomatoes
1 large handful fresh basil leaves
5 to 6 large handfuls of grated Parmesan cheese
5 to 6 large handfuls of grated Mozzarella cheese
olive oil
sea salt and ground pepper
Red wine vinegar

Remove the stalks from the eggplant and slice them into 1 cm thick slices and sweat them in a large plate. Set aside until the have sweated a thin layer of water; pat them dry. While the eggplants are sweating, preheat 2 glugs of olive oil in a large pan over medium heat. Add the onion, garlic, oregano and Italian herbs, and cook for 10 minutes, until the onion is soft and the garlic is lightly colored. Put the tomatoes in a bowl and break them up with your hands into small chunks, then add to the pan. Give the mixture a good stir, put the lid on and let it simmer for 15 minutes.

While the sauce simmers, preheat a grilling pan over high heat and grill the eggplant (in batches of 4 slices) until they have nice char marks on both sides.

Preheat the oven at 375 degrees. By this point, the sauce should be reduced and sweet. Season it carefully with salt and pepper and a small glug of red wine vinegar, and add the basil leaves. In a large Pyrex dish, layer the ingredients as follow: one thin layer of tomato sauce, a layer of eggplant, two handfuls of Parmesan and two handfuls of Mozzarella.

Repeat until you have used up all the eggplant, and cover with a bit more sauce and what is left of the cheeses, topped with a sprinkling of bread crumbs. Place in the oven and bake for half an hour, until golden, crisp and bubbly.

Obviously, choose good-quality cheese, and your dish will be so good you'll want to marry it. The ideal is Parmgianno Reggiano and buffalo mozzarella you grate yourself. Kraft Parmesan and Petit Québec mozzarella just don't cut it; you can easily do better than that without having to step in a fancy fromagerie.

Since my baby-brother doesn't like eggplants, we almost never ate this dish at home. But now that I mastered it, I make it for company and people go crazy for it. Oh, the delights those eggplant-phobics are missing. You can make this dish with zucchinis instead of eggplants, but treat yourself to the real deal at least once. It can be eaten hot or cold, and reheats quite well. Not that you'll have leftovers, but you know…

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