19 July 2014

In the thick of it

It happens on select days throughout the summer. On Friday, at 8:45 a.m., a slight wind crept into the open window and the first pangs for Fall hit me. Sweaters, no decisions regarding iced over hot, coffee. Work picking up. Apples. Soup. Boots. Crisp walks. But soon, I learned, the outside chill proved to be a tease. It was an amply hot summer day. That's where we're at, in the thick of it, and it's glorious and we're going to bask in it.

There's berries, cherries and basil. Tomatoes and eggplant, too. A sunny stroll just before dinner time to pick up some white wine in sunglasses, a tank top and flip flops, and lazy poolside saxophone music straightened out my momentary dalliance with chillier times.

But that wasn't going to stop my cooking plans with the two baby eggplants I'd seen at the farmer's market the previous day. They were newborns, just popping out into season. Even the gentleman ringing me up had to confirm with the other farmhand: "two for a dollar?" It was then I realized this was their first day. I'd pinned a recipe from Bon Appetite months before seasonal eggplant appeared, and the stars aligned; there was fresh muzz in the fridge and a little leftover tomato sauce in the freezer. 

A colleague recently asked me if I cook a lot of Italian food being Italian. My answer: hmm...kinda? A litany of traditional dishes rattled off in my head: lasagne, eggplant parm, chicken parm, etc and it occurred to me I have never really made any of them (due to early over-exposure perhaps?) and I realized it's not that I don't want to, but I want them to be different, have another spin.

It's a re-engineered eggplant parm and it's going on the summer menu rotation for as long as I can get my hands on these baby aubergines.The eggplants get halved, partly peeled and rubbed with just a little olive oil (a lot less than you'd use if you were frying slices in pans), seasoned and tucked onto a sheet pan covered with foil and roasted solo for a half hour. It's a step that takes the recipe up several notches and achieves the "meltiness" for which you'd otherwise be dependent on a lot of oil.

You'll want to use a good tomato sauce; if you have a go-to, use some of that, or Bon Appetite's recipe included a quick batch of onion-garlic tomato sauce. I already had some on sauce hand (not made by me, but leftover from a nearby restaurant who does not disappoint in their Sunday Sauce!) so I just added a bit of sauteed onions to that. Then bubbly chunks of fresh mozzarella melt into the sauce and flesh and the sprinkle of fresh breadcrumbs and grated parm provides just the right top crispiness.

 If you're in the market for a new eggplant parm, give this a try and your saute pan a break. Doubled or Quaded (as the original recipe does) I imagine it'd be a small crowd-pleaser.

But for us, it was lovely as it was, substantial but not heavy as some eggplant parms can be, eaten up on a  summer night just this side of cool, alongside a bit of pasta and arugula salad. Now that's my kind of Italian.

Eggplant Parmesan with Fresh Mozzarella

Barely tweaked from Bon Appetite
Notes: I made a few changes, some based on BA commenters, and my version is below. I divided the original recipe by four (ample for two as a hefty side and I only had two eggplants) and since my eggplants were on the small side of small, I did the initial roast of them for 30 minutes rather than the suggested 40, and they were perfect. Soft and tender but not mushy. I pulsed up a bit of day old bread for the breadcrumbs to make 1/4 c, and it is a nice touch. Try to use fresh. Finally, I used tomato sauce I had already, and I crushed the cooked garlic and tossed it into the sauce, too. I gave it a slip under the broiler to nicely crisp the top a bit more for the last minute (highly recommended : )


1/4 c tomato sauce of your choice or BA's
1/4 medium onion, finely chopped  (optional but recc'd)
2 scant Tbsp + 2 tsp olive oil, divided 
2 garlic cloves, whole 
 Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper 
 2 baby eggplants, halved lengthwise
 2 sprigs fresh rosemary or oregano + more
 ¼ cups coarse fresh breadcrumbs
 scant 3 oz. fresh mozzarella, torn into bite-size pieces
 1/2 oz (about 3 Tbsp) Parmesan, finely grated 
1. Oven to 400. Begin with the eggplants. Using a vegetable peeler, remove skin from rounded side of each eggplant half, leaving a 1” strip of skin around the cut edges. Place eggplants, rosemary or oregano sprigs, whole garlic cloves, and 2 Tbsp oil on a rimmed baking sheet. Turn eggplants to coat with oil; season with salt and pepper and place cut side down. Cover baking sheets tightly with foil and bake until eggplants are very soft, 30-40 minutes depending on size. Set aside. (Do-ahead: can be done up to 1 day ahead, cover/chill)

2. Meanwhile, if you don't have tomato sauce you'd like to use on hand already, make BA's. Otherwise, dice the onion finely and saute it in 1 tsp of olive oil on medium heat for 5-10 minutes until softened. Add a small pinch salt. Turn the heat down to low and let it go longer as if caramelizing. Add in your tomato sauce, remove from the heat and set aside. Optionally, smash the  garlic cloves cooked with the eggplants and add to the sauce.

3. Toss breadcrumbs with 1 tsp oil, a tiny pinch salt and pepper and a few snips rosemary. 

4. Place eggplants cut side up in a shallow baking dish. Paint each with a little sauce, top with mozzarella, then breadcrumbs and Parmesan. Bake uncovered about 25-30 minutes until mozzarella is bubbling and breadcrumbs golden (note: at 24 min I turned to broil setting and hit it under there for the last minute. Be careful and watch it though. Pull it just when you get a hint more brown.) Let cool on a rack for a bit and enjoy!

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