How about making a No-Nonsense (and Gluten-Free) Eggplant Parmigiana? When it comes to making an Eggplant Parmigiana, most of us will think of the long slices of eggplant that are dipped in beaten egg and then covered with bread crumbs and gently fried. Then a baking dish is layered as if you were making a lasagna, but using the fried eggplant slices instead of lasagna sheets. This is the Eggplant Parmigiana that I grew up on. It is one of my all-time favorite comfort food dishes, that is, until I studied and worked in Italy.
Eggplant parmigiana is an entirely different bird in Italy. The Italian version is much lighter, naturally gluten-free and more akin to a side dish than it is to a main course. So, if you’re looking for Italian-American Eggplant Parmigiana while visiting Italy, you will most likely not find one.
Italian eggplants are a smaller variety but are full of unique eggplant flavor. Eggplant is the star of this dish in the Italian version. (It is sometimes dipped in egg before frying but typically the eggplant is not coated in bread crumbs.) I grew to like this version of Eggplant Parmigiana much more. The eggplant gets a chance to really shine! If your three supporting ingredients (tomato sauce, mozzarella and Parmesan cheese) are of top quality, too, you will have an Eggplant Parmigiana that will be absolutely delightful and more traditional than its bread-crumbed cousin. And, as a bonus, when not served with bread it will be gluten-free too!
Last weekend I found some gorgeous melanzane (Italian eggplants) at my local supermarket that looked glossy with that beautiful aubergine color. They looked so fantastic that I was inspired to make this recipe.
Tip: When looking for eggplants, you want to make sure that they are smooth and firm with as few blemishes on the skin as possible. Check the stem end. Look to make sure the stem end is green and intact. Absolutely avoid very large eggplants, they have a tendency to have more seeds and can have a bitter flavor.
So now you’re ready. Go pick up some medium- to small-sized eggplants that have that beautiful aubergine color, no blemishes and an intact green stem and let’s get cooking!
My No-Nonsense Eggplant Parmigiana
- 6-7 Italian eggplants, medium-sized
- 4-5 cups tomato sauce (see below, or use your favorite)
- 1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
- 2 lbs. fresh mozzarella cheese, cut in 1/4 inch slices.
- salt and pepper
- Canola oil for frying
- Wash and dry off the eggplants.
- Cut off the stem end.
Using a vegetable peeler (this is optional) remove 3-4 strips of skin from the eggplant. (There is no need to salt these smaller eggplants after slicing them; they shouldn’t be bitter.)
- Cut the eggplant into 1/2 inch rounds. Slicing them a little bigger is better than smaller, since the eggplant will shrink as they fry and bake.
- Fry the eggplant on both sides until lightly colored.
- Remove the slices to a sheet tray layered with kitchen towel.
Season each eggplant with salt and pepper, to taste, on both sides as you begin to accumulate them on the absorbent tray.
To Make: Eggplant Parmigiana
When making this recipe, to serve 4-5 people, I like to cook the Eggplant Parmigiana in a cast iron skillet on top of my stove, first, and finish it in a 375°F oven.
- Preheat oven to 375°F
- Add a few tablespoons of tomato sauce to your skillet (if using) or baking dish and spread it out evenly.
- Place your biggest eggplant slices neatly on the sauce. Make sure to have as few gaps as possible between the slices. Use your most unattractive slices to fill in any gaps.
Tip: Having a tightly fitted bottom layer will make it easier to cut and serve.
- Now, add a layer of mozzarella cheese.
- Spread a few tablespoons of tomato sauce over the eggplant slices and sprinkle liberally with Parmesan cheese.
Tip: Remember this is an Eggplant Parmigiana, so do not skimp on the Parmesan cheese.
- Continue the steps starting with the tomato sauce to create 3 more layers.
- The final layer is your presentation side. Here you want to use your most attractive slices of eggplant and mozzarella cheese.
- Once the last layer is all set, gently press down on it to ensure all is even and compact.
- Then proceed with the mozzarella cheese and tomato sauce.
- Top all with a generous sprinkling of Parmesan cheese and you’re ready to turn up the heat!
- Once the Eggplant Parmigiana has been assembled, place your cast iron skillet (not the baking dish) on top of the stove and turn up the heat to medium high.
- Once the pan heats up and the sauce begins the slightly bubble, place it in your pre-heated oven for 35-40 minutes.
Tip: IMPORTANT: If using a baking dish, simply go straight into the oven and skip the stove-top cooking. A baking dish may crack when heated on top of the stove.
Remove from the oven once the cheese has melted, and the entire eggplant dish is bubbling nicely and and the sauce has thickened. Let the dish cool for 15-20 minutes before serving. This will allow it to settle and it will be easier to serve.
My Quick Tomato Sauce:
- 5 cups canned peeled tomatoes in their liquid
- 4 large garlic cloves, lightly crushed
- 1/2 small Spanish onion, medium diced
- 1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste.
- 1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh basil, fresh flat-leaf parsley, or oregano added at the very end.
- Using your (washed) hands, a fork or a potato masher, crush the tomatoes well and place in a separate bowl
- In a medium saucepan, cook the garlic in the olive oil over moderate heat until golden. Add the onion and cook until they lightly soften.
- Now add the tomatoes and stir well. Season slightly with salt and pepper; flavors will intensify during cooking so do not over-salt.
- Let cook partially covered for 30-40 minutes, stirring the sauce from time to time.
- Once the sauce has thickened and darkened in color, remove from the heat and pass through a food mill or blender.
- Pour all back into a pot. Simmer gently for 15 minutes or so, to thicken the sauce a little more after blending it.
- Remove from heat and adjust seasoning with a little more salt and pepper, if needed.
- Stir in your herbs of choice and enjoy with your favorite meal!
Tip: Store this tomato sauce in an airtight container. It will last 5-7 days in the refrigerator. Or, up to 3 months in your freezer.