Eggplant Parmesan – an Italian classic
Is there a definitive recipe for a traditional dish? Is it ok to claim that there is only one way to cook some classics? When it comes to Eggplant Parmesan in Italy, it is a tough call. There are three Italian Regions bragging rights to the real Parmigiana di Melanzane: Campania, Emilia Romagna, and Sicily.
Contrary to popular belief, the name Parmesan does not derive from the use of parmesan cheese in this famous recipe. There are different hypothesis about the origins of Parmigiana. The most popular claims that it comes from the Sicilian word “Parmiciana”, meaning a wood shutter having a set of parallel slats called louvers – that the layers of sliced eggplants are supposed to resemble.
Another theory is that the term “Parmigiana” means to cook like the Parmesans, the inhabitants of Parma, a city in Emilia Romagna Region that is famous for its culinary tradition.
Some believe that being eggplants – the principal ingredient of parmigiana – of asian origins, most probably derives from the Turkish translation of eggplant “patlican” (literally pronounced in Italian as padmegian).
As for the Eggplant Parmesan I am preparing, I am choosing Campania’s traditional recipe because my Neapolitan mother in law would never ever forgive me if I did not blog about it.
As Neapolitans say: “A parmigiana e’ mulignane ca se fa a’ Napule è semp’a meglio! (The eggplant parmesan that is made in Naples is always the best one!)
- About 1.2 kilos (42 ounces) of San Marzano or Piccadilly tomatoes
- About 1.5 kilos (53 ounces) of eggplants
- 400 grams (14 ounces) of Fior di Latte cheese (you can also use Provola)
- 8-10 tablespoons of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese
- 2 garlic cloves
- About ½ cup chopped onions
- Some basil sprigs
- About ¾ to 1 cup of olive oil (this includes oil for frying)
- Salt and pepper to taste.
Slice eggplants lengthwise (about 4-5 mm thickness). Eggplants should not be sliced too thin to prevent them from burning while frying. On the contrary, if eggplants are cut too thick, they will absorb too much oil.
Toss eggplants with salt and place them in a colander. The secret to a liquid free recipe is draining enough water from eggplants. Some recipes suggest to let eggplants drain for about 1 hour. I let them drain overnight.
According to Neapolitan tradition, eggplants should only be fried in olive oil, long enough to acquire an intense golden brown color. Fry 4 to 5 slices at a time. In other Italian regions, eggplants are previously dipped in egg batter or/and flour before frying.
Once fried, eggplants are transferred to a plate and covered with paper towels to drain excess oil. Make sure to eliminate excess oil: there is nothing worse than a Parmigiana drowned in oil.
To prepare the sauce, the most recommended type of tomatoes are fresh, ripe San Marzano or Piccadilly. Many Italian cooks consider these kind of “plum” tomatoes to be the best sauce tomatoes.
In a pot, boil water and add tomatoes, and blanche for about 1 – 2 minutes, the necessary time to soften them. The more time you boil tomatoes in water, the more water they absorb.
Once blanched, tomatoes are passed through a hand-held vegetable mill.
This useful tool besides from speeding up the process by easily removing skin and seeds (which determines acidity in tomato sauce) from tomatoes, it produces a sweeter and better quality of sauce.
In a saucepan, add 2-3 tablespoons of olive oil, and sliced garlic. Add chopped onions and sauté for about 30 seconds. Add sauce and simmer for about 1 hour or until sauce is thickened.
Add some basil leaves and salt and pepper to taste.
The type of cheese used in Parmigiana di Melanzane is crucial for the final result. Since Buffalo Mozzarella usually has high levels of serum (which is a sign of freshness), Neapolitans do not use it in the recipe since Eggplant Parmesan would become soggy.
Therefore, it is better to add sliced Fior di Latte, previously squeezed to eliminate excess liquid. Some Neapolitans even slice it, place it on a tilted plate, and leave it overnight in the refrigerator. In Naples some people use Provola cheese, which is an even drier cheese than Fior di Latte.
Arrange eggplant slices in the bottom of a baking dish (I used an oval baking dish ), overlapping slightly if necessary.
Spread over tomato sauce.
Cover with Fior di Latte slices, and Parmigiano Reggiano.
Add some whole basil leaves on top.
Continue layering with remaining eggplant, sauce, Fior di Latte, Parmigiano Reggiano, and basil.
According to tradition, the last layer of Eggplant Parmesan should only include tomato sauce and sprinkled Parmigiano Reggiano. Since I wanted to evidence all the ingredients of this recipe on top of the baking dish, I made an exception to the rule (I apologize to all Neapolitans out there!)
Bake at 200° C (about 400 F), uncovered, until cheese is melted and golden, about 30-40 minutes.
It is very important to let it cool for about 30 minutes before serving to appreciate flavors better.