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Instant Parma

Perfecting eggplant parmigiana

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ODE TO AUBERGINE When done right, eggplant can be as lusty as a steak.
  • ODE TO AUBERGINE When done right, eggplant can be as lusty as a steak.

Armando Paolo, founder of Armando's Pizza in my hometown of Cambridge, Mass., had a kind of charisma that could make a kid feel cool with just a simple show of recognition. But the real honor was years later, when he showed me how he prepared eggplant cutlet.

He passed away a few weeks ago, just as I finally hit my eggplant stride, and had something worthy of his attention. Not only is it really good; it comes together in about as much time as it takes to call Armando's and order an eggplant sub with everything on it.

Growing up, when I wanted a sub I'd just walk over and order one-often pausing en-route at Emma's Pizza to puzzle at the menu before announcing to myself, out loud, that I was going to go to Armando's instead. I did this to hear Emma recite all of her Italian four-letter words in rapid succession, and for the thrill of dodging flying wads of pizza dough.

My Instant Parma was built on what I learned and absorbed from Armando, but differs in several ways from his eggplant submarine sandwich that inspired me. The slabs of eggplant are thicker, as I don't have a deli slicer. The dish is served in a baked pile, rather than a roll. And while Armando's subs were tooled to be consistent, cookie cutter copies of one another, mine changes with the season, and what's in my fridge.

Back in the summer, when folks would practically pay you to take their excess zucchini, I would layer in some slices along with tomates and red peppers. In winter, it's simpler, like some onion slabs and mushroom slices layered in among the cheesy, sauce-drenched eggplant cutlets. One definite no-no is meat. Eggplant is a meaty vegetable, and when prepared right can be as lusty as a steak.

The main thing is to have the eggplant and a good marinara sauce ready, and some kind of meltable cheese on-hand. Armando used provolone; I prefer Parmesan.

Eggplant Parmigiana

Cut 3–4 eggplants into half-inch slices and place them in layers in a colander.

Sprinkle each layer with salt. Let it sit and drain for at least an hour, then gently press with a plate to squeeze out water.

Toss the slices in olive oil.

Dredge each slice in seasoned flour, plunge it in a bowl of beaten eggs with a splash of milk, then sprinkle with bread crumbs or panko. Seasoned flour consists of 1 teaspoon each of black pepper, garlic powder and paprika, and a half teaspoon of nutmeg powder, for each cup of white flour.

Bake on a baking pan at 400 degrees until golden.

To assemble, begin with a layer of eggplant on the bottom. Next comes sauce, then cheese and grated/pressed garlic. Next, add zucchini, peppers, mushrooms, onion, olives or whatever else you think might work. Then add another layer of eggplant, sauce, garlic and cheese.

Bake at 350, covered, for about 40 minutes, then uncovered for another 20. And that's it.

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