I grew up in Pennsylvania and lived for a long time in Boston and western Massachusetts and always felt so energized by witnessing my neighborhoods morph through all the stages of life. And autumn was always my favorite season by far, with the spectacularly vibrant trees glowing in the afternoon sun. Living now in the San Francisco area, we make a different kind of transition from the long foggy cold days of summer to the sunny warmth with crispy cool evenings of autumn, which while perhaps less colorful, feels no less dramatic once you’ve lived a summer here.
As I transition into autumn, and summer begins to wind down, I start to let go of my favorite summer squash and corn salads until next summer and begin to dream of rustic soups, vegetable gratins and warm salads. But as I look out on a sunny warm September afternoon, I’m reminded that we’re in a “transition month” that both paves the way for autumn while trailing some roots back into summer. So, a couple of days ago I headed to one of my local Farmer’s Markets looking for some inspiration and quickly found it in a bunch of beautiful tomatoes and a nice selection of eggplant as they are both at their peak right now in the fields. Since I like to work with eggplant and tomatoes within a couple of days of purchase, I decided to make one of my favorite dishes that works with both: Eggplant Parmigiano.
My favorite version of the classic Italian dish, Eggplant Parmigiano, is layered with Fontina and Parmesan cheeses, and uses breadcrumbs made in a Gremolata style and freshly made tomato sauce. The eggplant is salted and soaked in ice water to both remove bitterness and to keep them as crispy as possible when cooked. This is a particularly great way to keep them from absorbing too much oil if you fry them, but in this recipe I take a much lighter approach and bake them. Beefsteak and globe tomatoes work equally well, but keep the juiciest ones for another use. The juicier the tomato, the longer you will need to cook the tomato sauce to thicken it to the consistency you prefer.
A couple of notes about the history of this dish: Despite the use of Parmigiano in its name, which you would think references the Parma region in Northern Italy, eggplant first pops up in Sicily and the southern regions of Italy in the 1300’s. Specifically, the origins of this dish are most popularly pegged as Naples, and is extremely popular throughout the Campanian Region, Calabria and Sicily. The original dish likely didn’t include tomatoes, as they didn’t gain popularity in Southern Italy until the 1800’s. There are indications that the original dish used butter, herbs, cinnamon, parmigiano cheese, and a cream sauce enriched with egg yolks. It was a baked casserole, and frequently the eggplant slices, as now, were first fried before being baked in the casserole.
A Few Vegetable Notes:
Eggplants and tomatoes are both in the nightshade family and therefore don’t do well in the refrigerator. Eggplants have a shorter shelf life than tomatoes, and should be used within 2 -3 days of purchase. Note that the older the eggplant is, the more seeds it will have and the more bitter it can be, so preparing it when it’s at its peak is crucial. At its peak, the eggplant should have pale flesh and few visible seeds. Past their prime, the flesh darkens and is more bitter, and there are many more seeds visible. There is a lot of controversy around male and female eggplants and whether the females have more seeds and are therefore more bitter. Biologically, eggplants are considered fruits which therefore are pollinated and aren’t really “male” and “female”. BUT if you look on the bulbous end of the eggplant, look for a dimple – which is where the flower was attached. There does seem to be truth that eggplants having a round dimple may have more seeds and be less meaty while the fruit bearing a dash-like dimple will likely have less seeds and be less bitter. For more information on both eggplants and tomatoes, check out the Nutrition Notes, Food Cultural Heritage, and Practical Matters tabs.
Peak season for eggplants: mid-summer to early fall. Peak season for tomatoes: late summer and fall. Enjoy these while they last at the Farmer’s Markets.
I keep a stash of both the tomato sauce and the breadcrumbs frozen in the freezer and always have some reduced balsamic vinegar and toasted pine nuts as part of my pantry, making this a very easy, quick dinner to do during the week. Check out the “My Pantry” tab on the above Menu Bar for ingredients that I can’t do without.
A Few Cooking Notes:
For the balsamic reduction and the Gremolata breadcrumbs, just click on the links in the Ingredient List and you’ll see my recipe for each of these.
There’s some controversy around salting eggplant. It is believed by many, including me, that salting the eggplant removes some of its bitterness and that it can improve the texture of eggplant slices that will be broiled, roasted or fried. Further, Harold McGee the esteemed food scientist, believes salting eggplant helps prevent the slices from soaking up as much excess oil during cooking.
I have found soaking eggplant slices in an ice water bath helps to create another barrier to oil absorption during cooking.
Makes 6 mini-casseroles
- 1 large globe eggplant
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
- 1 teaspoon reduced balsamic vinegar
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
- 2 pounds tomatoes
- 1 onion chopped (about 1 cup)
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 1/2 teaspoon fennel seed
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon pepper
- 1/4 teaspoon sugar
- 1/3 cup Gremolata breadcrumbs
- 2 tablespoons toasted pine nuts
- 12 small slices Fontina cheese
Sautè the onions in 2 tablespoons olive oil and 1 tablespoon butter over medium-low heat, until they’re soft and aromatic.
Slice the tomatoes in half across their middles. Using the largest holes in a cheese grater, grate the cut surface of each tomato half across the grater until only the skin is left. This successfully removes the skin and converts the tomatoes into a thick, slightly chunky sauce.
Place the garlic, fennel seed, salt, pepper and sugar in the bowl of a mortar and pestle set and grind until aromatic. It doesn’t need to be a paste. Add the mixture to the tomatoes.
Bring to a simmer and cook for about 1 hour until the tomato sauce thickens. If you prefer a thicker sauce, just cook it a little longer until you have the thickness you want.
Slice off the calyx (the star-shaped green patch where the fruit meets the stem) and discard. Slice the eggplant into ¼” thick slices and lightly salt both sides.
Place the slices on a rimmed baking sheet and fill the baking sheet with water and ice cubes so that the eggplant is completely submerged. Weight the eggplant with an upturned mixing bowl or a couple of plates.
Let soak for at least 30 minutes, and ideally 1 hour.
Place the pine nuts in a dry pan over medium-low heat and lightly toast.
Preheat the oven to 400º F. Rinse the eggplant slices to remove the salt and dry. Lightly brush with the balsamic reduction and dip into the breadcrumbs to lightly coat. Place on a parchment paper lined baking sheet, and roast for 15 – 20 minutes or until soft and slightly browned.
Spoon a little tomato sauce in the bottom of an oven-proof individual serving piece or large shallow dish and begin to build a lasagna-like construction starting with a layer of eggplant, followed by a slice of Fontina cheese, a light sprinkling of breadcrumbs, another eggplant slice and finishing with Fontina cheese. Spoon some tomato sauce over the top, and sprinkle with ½ tablespoon Parmesan cheese, some breadcrumbs and toasted pine nuts.
Return the eggplant lasagna to the oven and bake for 10 minutes, or until the cheese begins to melt.
Serve immediately with a salad and a hunk of bread.