Thursday, August 23, 2012

Craving Eggplant

When I was a kid, I convinced myself that I was severely allergic to eggplant. There was something about the texture of cooked eggplant that freaked me out, and I could command my body to react violently to the sight of it. To be honest, I don't know if I was convincing to anyone but myself about my allergy. My aunt, ignorant to my "allergy," cooked eggplant parmesan while I was visiting, and for some reason, I not only tolerated it, I loved it.

 As an adult, eggplant is one of my favorite things, and properly prepared eggplant parmesan is heavenly. A recent craving for the dish led me to search for a new Epicurious recipe to prepare two beautiful eggplants I found at a weekend trip to a farmer's market. I adapted this interesting recipe for eggplant roll-ups to a traditional eggplant parmesan dish that turned out really well. One of my requirements for a well-prepared eggplant parmesan is that the eggplant slices not be so thinly sliced that they eggplant disintegrates into nothing, so I tend to cut my slices extra-thick and the result is sometimes a pretty firm eggplant center, which I don't mind at all. But you might.

Every ingredient in the dish I made was locally sourced or homemade, and you could tell. The three cheeses I used were all from Hudson Valley dairy- or cheese producers; the produce was from local farms; and the tomato sauce was canned by my mom using tomatoes from her garden last year. The mint was a little disconcerting to my husband, but I found that it did just what the recipe reviews said it would: it brightened up the dish and made it a bit more summery. Though it is a summer dish, be forewarned: prep is a killer in a hot kitchen.

Minty-Ricotta Eggplant Parmesan

2 medium eggplants (about 2 1/4 pounds total), trimmed, cut lengthwise into 1/4-inch to 1/2 inch-thick slices Coarse kosher salt Extra-virgin olive oil
1 cup white flour
3 large eggs
 2 cups breadcrumbs (I used unseasoned whole wheat)
1-2 cups of olive oil for frying the eggplant
1 15-ounce container whole-milk ricotta cheese
1 1/4 cups finely grated Parmesan cheese, divided
1 1-pound bunch Swiss chard, center ribs removed
2 tablespoons chopped fresh mint
3/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 15- to 16-ounce jar of tomato sauce (Mom's* is my preferred brand!)
1 8-ounce ball of fresh mozzarella sliced to taste.

*My mom's canned tomato sauce is so good that my husband thought I used fresh tomatoes and made the sauce myself that night from scratch!

Cover bottom and sides of each of 2 large colanders with 1 layer of eggplant slices; sprinkle generously with coarse salt. Continue layering eggplant slices in each colander, sprinkling each layer with coarse salt, until all eggplant slices are used. Place each colander over large bowl; let stand at least 30 minutes and up to 1 hour. Rinse eggplant slices to remove excess salt; dry thoroughly with paper towels.

Set up your eggplant-preparing station by filling three shallow bowls with, in respective order, flour, beaten egg, and bread crumbs. Lightly coat each slice of eggplant in flour on both sides, then dip in beaten egg, then lightly coat with bread crumbs. I dare you to not make a mess when you do this.

When each eggplant slice has been breaded, saute the slices in hot olive oil to a nice browness. Place finished slices on a tray to cool a little bit.

While your eggplants are cooling (or simultaneous to your saute, depending on how big your kitchen is) bring large pot of salted water to boil. Add chard to pot and boil just until tender, about 2 minutes. Drain; rinse with cold water. Squeeze chard very dry, then chop coarsely. Squeeze chard dry again between paper towels. Whisk eggs and pinch of coarse salt in medium bowl. Stir in chopped chard, ricotta cheese, 1 cup Parmesan, mint, and black pepper.

Lightly oil 15 x 10 x 2-inch glass baking dish. Spread half of tomato sauce evenly over bottom of dish. Arrange breaded eggplant slices over the sauce, then spread with the ricotta mixture. Top the ricotta with tomato sauce, and another layer of eggplant, and then repeat with ricotta & sauce if your dish is deep enough. Add a final layer of eggplant and then top slices of mozzarella. Sprinkle salt and pepper to taste, and bake at 300°F for 20-30 minutes or until the cheese begins to bubble and brown. You may want to crank up the temperature for the last ten minutes.

Make sure you let the dish set (rest) after taking it out of the oven so that the cheese top doesn't separate from the rest of the dish when you cut it. Serve a steamy, heaping slice to your loved ones. If you've done it right, you won't need extra sauce or parmesan cheese, but it wouldn't hurt to have some on hand!

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