Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Eggplant Parmigiana over Vermicelli

Eggplant Parmigiana over Vermicelli
If you've been paying attention to this blog, you've probably figured out that I am about as far from vegetarian as you can get. Even so, there are a few vegetarian dishes that I enjoy so much that I don't miss the meat- which is, I think, the hallmark of a great vegetarian meal. The classic Eggplant Parmigiana is probably the best example of this, in my opinion. It is simple in concept, but surprisingly difficult to execute. It is also a dish close to my heart, for a variety of reasons...

First off, if anyone tells you that Eggplant Parmigiana is easy to make, smack them immediately. This is a dish that highlights the difference between "simple" and "easy" - the concept is as simple as possible- breaded eggplant, tomato sauce, and mozzarella cheese. This sounds easy, but it is not! Getting these three basic components together is time consuming and somewhat tedious- there are many steps required to prepare at least two of these three components, and many places where things can go very wrong. Add another layer of difficulty of you want to serve it with pasta or another side dish, and double or triple the complexity if you want to really do it right and make your own fresh mozzarella, or make your pasta from scratch!

That said, this is enough work for one person to do in a busy home with young kids running around, so I won't be attempting to make mozzarella or fresh pasta today. Preparing a tomato sauce and breading/frying a ton of eggplant is more than enough to keep me busy!

The first task will be to get your tomato sauce started. We are going to make a simple basic tomato sauce, much like the ones I've shown in some of my other posts. In this case- I will not be using any meat, and I will only cook this for about an hour, so it will appear a little on the watery side, with lots of chunks of tomato rather than something very rich and thick- remember we will be baking this in the oven for a while too, so it will have time to tighten up, and I actually prefer a chunkier sauce for this application. Start off by cooking some chopped onion in olive oil, then add a few cloves of chopped garlic, all seasoned with salt and pepper.

Add in about 15-20 skinned tomatoes (or two cans of pre-skinned tomatoes), and all the juices and pulp. Either crush the tomatoes by hand or with  your favorite kitchen tool. You'll probably want to add a bay leaf to counter some of the acidity (especially if the tomatoes are from a can). Once this mixture comes up to heat and starts bubbling, add a handful of fresh basil leaves and adjust seasoning. Let the sauce simmer for about an hour so some of the loose liquid reduces. Yes, I'm intentionally keeping my sauce much more simple than normal, I want the eggplant to be the real star, and the tomato to just be a basic condiment. If you prefer, you can use a more involved tomato sauce recipe, or even a meat-based gravy if you want to break the vegetarian barrier (although you'll need much more cooking time). While the sauce simmers, we can start working on the main event...

Naturally, you'll need Eggplant. You can use just about any variety of eggplant you prefer- I recommend using whatever looks the most fresh at the market (or from your garden) rather than tying yourself to a specific type. The smaller varieties can be easier to handle and slice- and have fewer seeds, but the larger variety is more traditional, and since it makes larger slices, you'll need fewer slices. For my purposes today, I'm going traditional and using the large eggplant. The other advantage to using large eggplant is that you need about two of them to make a full tray (three if you have a very deep baking dish).

How to slice the eggplant is a point of debate. Some people prefer to slice their eggplant longways- this saves time since you'll have a smaller number of larger slices, which will save time while breading and frying. The more traditional way is to slice it into rounds - this is the way I was always taught, and the way I consider "correct" - if only because it is nearly impossible to slice a large eggplant lengthwise by hand with a kitchen knife. If you use smaller eggplant, you'll have an easier time with this. Slicing by hand is a little tedious at first, but you'll get the hang of it. Start slowly and carefully - you want your slices as even as possible, and you want them to be less than 1/4 inch thick- closer to 1/8 inch. As you make your slices, set them aside in a bowl and salt them slightly- as they rest, this little bit of salt will help remove the slight bitterness that eggplant sometimes has- so don't skimp on this part of the process.

If you don't have the patience to slice your eggplant by hand (and I won't blame you for it since it can be very tedious unless you have strong knife skills)- the alternative is to use a more specialized tool to zip through the process- such as a mandoline slicer. A mandoline may restrict how large an eggplant you can handle (unless you cut it into more manageable pieces, but it will make perfectly even, consistent slices very quickly. It's more important to get reasonably thin, even slices, than to prove to the world that you can handle a chef's knife- so using a mandoline really isn't "cheating" unless you feel you need the practice. Medium-thin slices will help break up the skin- which can be tough to chew if it's left in larger pieces. Some people find the small seeds you'll find in larger eggplant unpleasant, nice thin slices will help break these up as well, so they'll cook through and soften.

The next part is the most tedious- we'll need to bread and fry all of our eggplant slices to a nice golden brown. We'll need to start by setting up a breading station- you'll need a "wet" container of scrambled egg- about 4 or 5 eggs should be enough, and a "dry" container filled with seasoned breadcrumbs (toasted breadcrumbs mixed with a little salt, pepper, parsley and/or oregano, and a little parmesan cheese). Before you begin, set a large, heavy bottomed pan on the stove with a good layer of olive oil on the heat. When your oil is hot, you're ready to begin. I recommend starting with a single slice to make sure your oil is hot enough before starting your mass production line.

Dip the eggplant slice in the egg with one hand, get it completely coated, then shake off the excess. Drop the egg coated slice in the breadcrumb, then switch hands. You'll find life much easier, and less messy if you maintain a "wet" hand and a "dry" hand. With your "dry" hand, make sure the slice is completely coated in breadcrumb, and shake off any excess. When you are happy with it, lay it down in the hot oil and cook it until it has a nice golden-brown color- you'll need about one to two minutes per side- slow enough that you can easily get distracted tending to your sauce, or your kids, etc..., but quick enough that you have to pay attention to it or it will burn, so try to avoid distractions at this stage- you have a lot of eggplant to prepare!

Once your eggplant is done, let it rest on a paper towel to drain off the excess oil, and cool off enough to handle. Repeat this process until you run out of eggplant. This is the part that is easy to get wrong. It is very tempting to try to speed things up and take out your eggplant before it has enough color. It is also easy to get distracted and leave some of the eggplant in too long, and scorch it. Remain patient. Do it right. It will take as long as it's going to take, no matter how hungry your family gets. To do less is an injustice, and will spoil the texture and flavor. Keep an eye on your oil as you go- the excess breadcrumb may turn into a sludgy black mess after a while- so you may need to either add more oil (the eggplant actually absorbs a surprising amount of oil- which is why we are frying in olive oil rather than something more generic), or even clean out the pan and restart the process if it gets too bad. Like I said, be patient, this is the make it or break it stage.

At this point, you could eat, and enjoy your fried eggplant, but that's not the point of the dish. By now, you should be ready to put everything in your baking dish, and get it ready for the oven. Speaking of the oven, You want to build your dish in layers, so start by lining your baking dish with a little of our tomato sauce. Unless you have a longer period of time to cook the sauce, it may seem like it's too chunky, and too watery, rather than the thick, smoother sauce you're used to- this is fine, as long as the liquid part of the sauce has had enough time to thicken at least a little bit to a stew-like consistency. There's nothing wrong with a thicker sauce either, so it's all about your preference here.

Now we can begin our first layer of eggplant- lay the slices on top of the tomato sauce until you have a complete layer. In the end you'l want to have at least three or four layers- more is ok too, so this should give you an idea of how much to use. If you have large gaps between your slices, you can cover them over with more eggplant, but try not to make the layer thicker than necessary.

Coat each layer with a little more tomato sauce, and a shot of grated parmesan cheese, then repeat the process. On one of your middle layers- probably the first or the second, you'll also want to add a small amount of fresh mozzarella cheese- not much, just enough to give the interior a little "gooeyness" and help glue the whole construction together. Continue this operation until your baking dish if full- this will probably be about four layers of eggplant. When you get to the top layer, coat it with sauce as before, then break up the rest of your fresh mozzarella on top to cover. The whole tray should take about 16oz of fresh mozzarella- which is actually a little on the conservative side- but remember that fresh mozzarella is fairly expensive, and the cheaper, rubbery kind just isn't quite the same.

When your assembly is complete, put the tray in a 350 degree oven for about 20 to 30 minutes, or until the cheese is completely melted and the sauce is beginning to bubble up. I like to keep an eye on it, and  lower the heat a bit once the cheese is melted so it doesn't get browned on top - it just looks nicer that way. Try to reserve a small amount of sauce for your pasta- if you don't have enough, you can just coat your pasta with a little butter or olive oil- remember the pasta really isn't the main event, it's just playing a supporting role here.

I used Vermicelli pasta this time- vermicelli is fairly thin, and only takes a few minutes to cook once the water is boiling. I would suggest, for timing purposes, that you put your pot of water for the pasta on the heat before you actually assemble your baking dish, or you'll find yourself in that uncomfortable place where you find yourself staring at a pot of water that refuses to come to a boil when you want it to. When the pasta is finally ready, drain it, and toss it with any remaining tomato sauce you have, or with a touch of butter and/or olive oil. If you've timed things right, your eggplant should be ready at right about the same time as the pasta.

I prefer to plate mine starting with a layer of Vermicelli, and place a nice stack of eggplant on top, then garnish with a little grated parmesan, some parsley, and a little crushed red pepper. When baked down, the breadcrumb coating helps tighten up the sauce, and in turn, absorbs some of the sauce. The eggplant itself becomes soft and also interacts with the breading. The end result is a stack of very tender eggplant that you can cut with a fork (or a spatula). The boundary between sauce, breading, and the eggplant itself becomes less distinct, producing an almost creamy feel to the whole affair, but still has that almost meaty texture that eggplant develops when roasted. The bits of eggplant that may have been exposed, or didn't have quite as much sauce on them develop a little more of a toothy texture, and serve as little surprise contrasts.

Eggplant Parmigiana is something I've eaten all my life. It,like many other of my favorites, has been passed down from my grandparents to my parents, to me. I made a very different variation of it for my wife on the night I proposed to her, so it's something very ingrained into my psyche- even though I don't make it very often. It is a very labor intensive dish, that can easily take more time to produce than you think. Enough so, that my family was beginning to get upset about how long dinner was taking to prepare- so if you plan on taking on the challenge- make sure you give yourself plenty of time to get the job done. The risk is worth it for this near-perfect, classic, comfort food.

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