balancing a stack of hefty textbooks (don’t ask me why we either didn’t use, or hadn’t yet invented, daypacks), i swung open the front door. my glasses immediately steamed, obscuring, in part, what lay ahead. directly to my right, my dad stood at the stove, stirring something in a very large skillet. “hi, dad.” “he-ey,” he replied, with a big grin on his face. then turned his attention back to the frying pan.
as the fog cleared, i gasped: nearly every pot and pan from our cupboards protruded from the kitchen sink. it felt like a nightmare of mammoth proportions. not only would i have to wash and dry all the Revere Ware, my mother would expect me to “Twinkle” (as if it were a verb) the copper bottoms of each piece. i didn’t know anything about cursing back then, but if i had, i would have. i set my books on the kitchen table and gritted my teeth. “so, what are you making,” i asked in as calm a voice as i could muster. “well,” dad said, “spaghetti and meatballs. sausage, onions and peppers. oh, and eggplant.”
with his entire arm, he gestured grandly across the breadth of the stove, where yet even more cookware held his bubbling, spattering and begrudgingly fragrant menu. a first-generation Italian-American, my father loved to spend hours in the kitchen reinterpreting Italian cuisine. his creations were actually quite delicious. but hurricane Gus left a trail of unsurpassed culinary destruction.
after dinner was served—and we were all totally stuffed—my dad washed the dishes, and i dried. i figured he had a little pang of guilt about the sheer volume of cookware he’d used. yeah, i still had to polish the copper-bottomed pots and pans, but i really didn’t mind. that much.
with end-of-summer bounty, including basil, cherry tomatoes and eggplant, i put together this glorious version of eggplant parmesan. fresh, but rich and cheesy, it tastes even better after it sits overnight in the fridge. i think my father would have appreciated my interpretation. he-ey, dad, this one’s for you.
a variation based on a Tyler Florence recipe
for the speedy sauce
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 small sweet onion, thinly sliced
2 cloves garlic, finely sliced
1 medium red bell pepper, chopped
3 pints cherry tomatoes, each tomato cut in half
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1/2 cup red wine (i used a 2007 Subduction Red from Syncline Wine Cellars)
1/2 pound hot italian sausage, browned (optional)
freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup fresh basil, whole leaves
for the eggplant
2 medium eggplants (or 4 small eggplants)
seasoned Italian breadcrumbs (e.g., Progresso)
for the filling
1 container whole-milk ricotta cheese
1 1/3 cups Parrano cheese, grated (or a combination of Parmesan and Romano cheese)
2 pounds mozzarella cheese, grated
1/2 cup fresh basil, whole leaves
salt and freshly ground pepper
- heat the olive oil in a large, deep skillet over medium heat.
- add the onions and garlic; cook for about 5 minutes, until the onion begins to soften.
- add the tomatoes and bell pepper, and let simmer. tomatoes will begin to break down and pepper will soften.
- add the red wine and let it cook down into the simmering tomato sauce.
- salt and pepper to taste.
- stir in the browned sausage, if you’ve decided to include it, and continue to cook.
- stir in the tomato paste to thicken slightly.
- just before you remove the sauce from heat, stir in the basil leaves, then set aside.
- to prepare the eggplant, crack two eggs in a shallow bowl; season with salt and pepper and beat with a fork to mix.
- put the flour in another shallow bowl and season with salt and pepper.
- arrange the eggplant, beaten eggs and bread crumbs on a work surface near the stove.
- heat about 1/4-inch olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat.
- when the oil is hot, dredge several eggplant slices in the egg, then coat them in the bread crumbs.
- put as many eggplant in the skillet as will fit comfortably in a single layer and cook until tender and well browned on both sides; drain on paper towels.
- cook all of the eggplant slices this way, adding more olive oil to the pan as needed.
- stir together the ricotta and 1/2 cup of the Parrano cheese.
- stir in the basil and season with salt and pepper.
- preheat the oven to 350F.
- put the eggplant, ricotta mixture, tomato sauce, the shredded mozzarella cheese and the remaining 3/4 cup grated Parrano cheese on the counter.
- grease a 9 x13-inch baking dish with a very light coat of olive oil.
- to begin assembly, spoon some of the tomato sauce over the bottom of the baking dish; add a layer of eggplant.
- spread half of the ricotta mixture over the eggplant.
- spoon another layer of tomato sauce over the ricotta, and sprinkle with about one-third of the mozzarella.
- repeat the process, then finish with the rest of the eggplant, the rest of the tomato sauce and the rest of the mozzarella.
- sprinkle the top with 3/4 cup Parrano.
- bake for about 1 hour, until golden and bubbling.
let stand for 20 minutes before serving.