“No dish has ever been devised that tastes more satisfyingly of summer,” Marcella Hazan wrote of eggplant Parmesan in her definitive (and assertive) cookbook, “Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking.” (I might argue that if she’d never been to a clambake or a crab boil, just this once she might have been wrong.)
But at the end of the season – when the tomatoes are destined for sauce instead of salad, the eggplants are shiny and firm, and the idea of a casserole begins to seem appealing again – eggplant Parmesan beckons to many cooks. In Italy, the dish is soft and silky, with the eggplant acting as a succulent sponge for the flavors of olive oil and tomato.
But I’ve never made an eggplant Parmesan that I didn’t regret.
Draining, dredging and frying eggplant slices is a completely worthwhile kitchen project (if one of the messier ones). But according to most American recipes for eggplant Parmesan, I am supposed to bury those crisp slices in a dish with tomato sauce, bake them into mush and still expect deliciousness. This never happens. The breading in the crust always soaks up the liquid, and the whole thing becomes mired in sludge.
At some point between Rome and Rochester, the recipe seems to have been lost in translation. In general, Italian recipes call for frying the eggplant in a light dusting of flour, making it brown and tender. American recipes often add an egg wash and breadcrumbs to make a thicker, crunchy crust. This is a great development when you are eating plain fried eggplant, but not when that eggplant is destined to end up in a casserole.
Still, I believe that eggplant Parmesan is – or should be – the perfect crowd-pleasing vegetarian entree, with its familiar flavors and satisfying richness. A main dish of eggplant has heft, unlike an entree based on broccoli or cabbage.
I was determined to reformulate the dish so that the eggplant would behave like a cutlet of veal or chicken, standing on its own crusty merits.
There are many good recipes, including Hazan’s, for eggplant Parmesan – but none for a crunchy alternative. You can make grilled and roasted, stacked and rolled, muffin-tin and mug-baked versions. But these run the risk of becoming tough or slimy or both.
In the real world, how to put crunchy eggplant, juicy tomato sauce and melted cheese together on one plate? As is often the case, the answer to my cooking puzzle was already lurking in the memory of Jacques Pépin, the French-American chef who has been cooking professionally since he was 13. (At that time in France, it was possible to leave school and become an apprentice in your teens.)
As a boy, he helped his mother in the family’s restaurant kitchen near Lyon, where he watched her make beignets d’aubergines. She’d split the large eggplants of late summer in half, then thinly slice each half while keeping the slices attached at the stem end, and dip them in a light, eggy batter.
“It was a little like tempura, and I don’t know how she knew to do it, but it worked,” he said. (She also addressed zucchini this way.)
The slices fan out prettily, and even a fat eggplant becomes flat enough to cook as a cutlet. This way of preparing the vegetable for frying is also traditional in Sicily, where the puffed, golden-brown whole eggplants are called melanzane a quaglia, or eggplant quail-style. The slices curl up and arch as they hit the hot oil, making them look like birds’ wings.
Doing this with smaller whole eggplants works beautifully. I salt the eggplants lavishly, not because of any bitterness that needs to be removed but to firm and season the flesh. (Eggplant flesh itself is almost devoid of flavor and consists mainly of fiber.)
Pressing the eggplants down as they absorb the salt helps both expel the liquid and force them into a flatter shape, the better for pan-frying.
Make sure the batter permeates all the edges and crevices of the eggplant, and then plaster the surface with panko or breadcrumbs.
Once the eggplant was addressed, I needed hot tomato sauce and melted mozzarella to complete the dish. Borrowing an idea from shakshuka, I dropped spoonfuls of mozzarella into simmering tomato sauce, left them to melt, then spooned them out together. Firm, dry-packed mozzarella melted more neatly and reliably than the soft, fresh, water-packed kind.
To keep the eggplant crisp to the very end, I placed the sauce and cheese next to the eggplant on each serving plate, but you might spoon them on top. (You also might put a bed of pasta on the plate for a truly filling meal.)
This revised classic is an excellent reminder that new ways with old dishes are always out there – and sometimes they come from our oldest sources.
Crunchy Eggplant Parmesan
4 to 5 entree servings
1 hour 30 minutes
8 to 10 small eggplants
2 cups all-purpose flour
3 large egg yolks
2 cups dry breadcrumbs or panko, seasoned with 1 teaspoon each salt, black pepper, garlic powder and dried oregano
Vegetable oil, for frying
3 cups tomato sauce, preferably homemade
4 to 6 ounces packaged mozzarella, shredded or diced
Freshly minced basil or parsley, for serving
Step 1: Heat the oven to 325 degrees. Set a large ovenproof wire rack over a large rimmed baking sheet.
Step 2: With a small, sharp knife, starting just below the stem, cut each eggplant lengthwise into 1/4 -inch-thick slices, keeping them attached at the stem. Place them on paper towels and press down on the eggplants to fan the slices out. Sprinkle with salt on both sides and set aside.
Step 3: Measure out 2 cups ice water. In a medium bowl, whisk the flour with the egg yolks and half the water until almost smooth, then whisk in the remaining water. Add a little more water if the batter seems too thick; it should be runny, like glue.
Step 4: Place the breadcrumbs and seasonings in a medium bowl and lightly mix and crush together with your hands.
Step 5: In a large, deep skillet, heat a generous 1/2 inch of vegetable oil until shimmering (about 350 degrees).
Step 6: Working in batches, dip eggplants in the batter, dredge in breadcrumbs and add to the skillet. Fry until nicely browned on the bottom, about 3 minutes. Reduce the heat if the eggplants are browning too quickly. Turn and cook until browned on the second side, about 3 minutes longer. Transfer to the rack set over the baking sheet and season with salt; transfer the baking sheet with the rack to the oven to keep warm while you fry the remaining eggplant.
Step 7: In a wide skillet, heat the marinara sauce over low heat until bubbling. Divide the mozzarella into 8 to 10 piles (one for each eggplant). Pick up and place the piles of cheese in the sauce, spacing the piles out so they melt separately. You may need to do this in 2 batches.
Step 8: Divide eggplants on plates. Place a spoonful of sauce next to or on top of each eggplant. Top sauce with melted mozzarella, lifting it out with a slotted spoon. Sprinkle with fresh herbs, and serve immediately.