Eggplant, or aubergine in Europe, is a vegetable with a long history, valued for its beauty as well as its unique flavor and texture. Eggplant was introduced to Europe in the 14th century by China, but it would not be until centuries later, when new varieties were developed, that the eggplant would assimilate itself into the Mediterranean cuisine as a fundamental ingredient. The early variety was actually quite bitter and some even suspected it to be the cause of insanity and leprosy!
Summertime eggplants are ubiquitous in the European kitchen, when they are at peak freshness—sweet and mild with inconspicuous seeds and no trace of bitterness. There are many varieties of eggplant but most of us are accustomed to the large, round, deep purple type. You can find the most interesting varieties at farmers’ markets: ranging in shape—round to oblong, size—2 inches to 12 inches long, and color—white, green, magenta, lavender and even striped. As a general rule, the lighter the color, the milder the flavor. Larger eggplants may also have thicker, tougher skin, which can be peeled at your discretion.
When enjoying the season’s eggplant, look for smooth, firm and glossy skin and a bright green stem, which indicate freshness. Eggplants deteriorate more rapidly at room temperature and will begin to develop bitterness overtime. The eggplant perishes quickly once its inner flesh is exposed to air; leave it whole until you are ready to use.
Eggplants have a dense, spongy texture and are a fine substitute in meatless dishes. They are quite versatile and can be broiled, grilled, fried, roasted, and stir-fried. One of my favorite spreads is baba ghanouj, a delicious additional to sandwiches, or as a dip for pita bread and veggies. Eggplant is also great in pasta and casseroles and of course, is the key ingredient of eggplant parmesan, or parmigiani di melanzane, a classic preparation in southern Italy.
To salt of not to salt? Salting is often used to tenderize the flesh’s texture, lower its capacity to absorb oil, and remove bitterness. Simply sprinkle eggplant slices with salt and allow to rest on paper towels for 30 minutes. Blot dry and rinse to remove the salt. Chances are, if you buy eggplant fresh, in season at the farmers’ market, it won’t need any salting. Fresh eggplant is always best, with a delicate, spongy texture and hardly a trace of bitterness.
Eggplant Parmesan Stacks
This is my take on eggplant parmesan. Instead of frying the eggplant, I opted for a lighter method of coating the slices in egg whites and bread crumbs. Whole wheat bread crumbs are easy to make : tear up bread into pieces, toast on low until thoroughly dried out, and pulse in a food processor. My "stacked" version, with a modest amount of cheese, makes for a nice presentation. The prosciutto is optional (the dish is substantial as is), but is a light way to incorporate a hint of meat for those who prefer it. Serve with warm crusty bread, pasta, and a light summer salad.
12 eggplant rounds, each 1/4-inch thick (from 1-2 eggplants depending on size)
2 egg whites
¾ cup fine dry breadcrumbs
½ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon pepper
1 - 14 ½ oz can organic tomatoes—diced or whole
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 tablespoons thinly sliced fresh basil leaves
2 tablespoons olive oil
3½ ounces mozzarella, thinly sliced into 12 pieces (fresh is optimal)
4 slices of prosciutto, cut in half (optional)
1. Preheat oven to 400F. Salt eggplant if desired (see section above).
2. In a shallow dish, whisk egg whites until frothy. In another shallow dish, combine breadcrumbs, ¼ cup Parmesan cheese, salt and pepper. Dip eggplant slices into egg-whites, then coat with breadcrumb mixture. Arrange eggplant in a single layer on a large, rimmed baking sheet. Bake about 25 minutes until crisp and golden, turning slices over half way through baking time.
3. Meanwhile, puree tomatoes in a blender or food processor; remove any large chunks. Bring to a boil in a heavy small saucepan; reduce heat to medium and simmer until thickened, about 20 minutes. Add garlic, oil and basil; simmer 5 minutes longer. Season with salt and pepper. Remove from heat.
4. Place 4 slices of eggplant on baking sheet. Top each slice with 1-2 tablespoons sauce, a mozzarella slice, and a half prosciutto slice if using. Repeat layering twice (omitting prosciutto for the last layering). Sprinkle the remaining ¼ cup parmesan evenly over the mozzarella.
5. Bake 12 minutes, until bubbly. Serve immediately.