Monday, August 30, 2010

Melanzane alla Parmigiana: Cooking Tricks to Make it Perfect!

Tomato sauce for eggplant stewImage via Wikipedia
I've said it before and I'll say it again: I'm convinced that cooking METHODS are far more important than actual recipes if you want to be known among your friends as a "good cook".

Unfortunately, most cookbooks don't give you the tricks of the trade.

No, that's not quite right: some cookbooks do, but they rarely tell you everything. There are cooking secrets so well kept that they never, ever surface anywhere!

That's the case with melanzane alla parmigiana, a cheese and eggplant dish that is a classic of Italian cuisine. In most restaurants, it's a disaster. Lukewarm, oily, swimming in old tomato sauce with gooey cheese that gets stuck in your teeth. Actually the cheese - usually slices of mozarella - tastes of nothing at all. And that yellow and black stuff in the middle, that feels like a greasy sponge, is (presumably) eggplant. Poor eggplant...

Once, a long time ago, in a small trattoria in the countryside near Naples, I had a superb melanzane alla parmigiana. Nothing was oily or tasteless about it, the eggplant had an amazingly light texture, almost like a soufflé, the cheese was flavourful, the tomato fresh. It was made in heaven!

It took me all of twenty years to figure out how that was done. I've asked Italian friends, I've tried every possible variant. And I kept running into the same problems: too much oil was absorbed by the eggplant when I fried it, too much water oozed out of the mozzarella while it cooked in the oven, the tomato sauce was either flat-tasting or overwhelming. I tried grilling the eggplant instead of frying it, on the theory that it wouldn't - by definition - absorb any oil and that it would be good for you. A light diet and all that. Well, let me tell you, using grilled eggplant slices is a sorry substitute. The slices go dry on you as they grill away,and there's not a chance you'll ever get that fluffy wonder that makes all the difference.

So here is how to do it and get super results (in my humble opinion):

Ingredients for 4 persons:

- One very large eggplant or 2 medium
- A cupful of tomatoes very red and ripe
- 150 g mozzarella cheese
- 150 g grated parmigiano cheese or more - to taste
- basil leaves
- salt and pepper as needed
- Olive oil to fry the eggplants - enough for deep-frying, exactly as for French fries


Turn the oven high - on 6 or whatever heat you use to roast a chicken.

Get your ingredients ready:

1. To prepare the eggplant: peal away most of the skin leaving only a few strips then cut it in thick slices and lay on a reclining dish; sprinkle with salt and let it ooze out for about 30 minutes (this serves to get rid of the bitter taste some eggplants may have);

2. To prepare the tomatoes: the tastiest are the cherry tomatoes which you can cut up in very small pieces (at least 4 pieces out of each cherry tomato); alternatively, drop very red, ripened tomatoes in boiling water for one minute, pull out once the skin has broken, cool under cold water and peel them, breaking them up in pieces; in both cases, set the tomatoes aside in a bowl with salt, pepper and basil leaves to flavour them;

3.To prepare the mozzarella cheese, slice it and squeeze it to get most of the water out; don't worry if it breaks up, it doesn't matter; set it to drip dry in a colander;

4. Now for the most difficult part of the recipe. Heat olive oil in a big pot; make sure there's enough oil to cover the eggplant slices abundantly. I always use olive oil for frying, it's better for your health, it doesn't burn so easily and you can use it again at least once (if you haven't allowed it to burn!), AND it leaves a nice taste in your mouth - indispensable for Italian food.

Dry the eggplant with a paper towel and quickly roll the slices in flour: the flouring will create a thin protective crust once the eggplant hits the boiling oil and thus prevent it from absorbing too much oil (if you ever try to fry eggplant without flouring first, you'll see what happens, they become soggy with oil). So, once the oil is really hot (but not smoking!), shake off any extra flour and drop the eggplant slices one by one. Now you have to stay over your boiling oil with a spatula or some such to turn the slices and make sure they cook evenly to a golden colour; lift them out to dry on a paper towel.

5. Last step in the recipe but the most important one: putting it all together in a pyrex dish to go in the oven. This is where it is easy to make mistakes: it has to be done in a certain way and that's what makes the difference. Let me be very, very clear:
a. Start with a layer of eggplant slices and set some tomatoes around them, making sure you're lifting the tomatoes out of the juice they've spewed out, and if needed, squeezing them as dry as you can (you don't want extra liquid here!).
b. Over the slices sprinkle generously grated parmigiano cheese - because, remember, it's in the name: even though you have mozzarella in the recipe, it's the parmigiano that does it!
c. Then slices (or pieces) of mozzarella wrung dry and make sure to top them with parmigiano cheese; add pepper to taste (no salt is needed because the parmigiano is salty);
d. Start again with a, b, c - you  need at least two layers like this and better still if you can make three. Top it off with the remaining tomatoes and basil leaves. If they fall on the side, it doesn't matter.

Put 20 minutes in the oven (middle rack), until the cheese is soft and the parmigiano on top has turned slightly golden. Wait for it to cool down before serving. It tastes better when it's not too hot.

Do let me know how it worked for you!
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