|Eggplant Parmigiana over Vermicelli|
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!
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.
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...
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.
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 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.