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Making eggplant Parmigiana

Sliced eggplant is just the beginning for many

Sliced eggplant is just the beginning for many Parmigianas. Credit: Fotolia

Do they have veal Parmigiana in Italy?

Not really. In fact, you'd be hard-pressed to find any dish in which a slab of veal, chicken or eggplant (let alone shrimp) is smothered in tomato sauce and then blanketed in melted mozzarella.

Despite a name that calls to mind the northern Italian city of Parma, the ancestor of America's myriad Parms is a southern Italian eggplant dish, Parmigiana di melanzane, a specialty of Naples. As Italian cookbook author Arthur Schwartz explains, Neapolitan Parmigiana is never a meat dish. And, unlike the mozzarella-dominated Italian-American Parms, grated Parmigiano-Reggiano is a key ingredient in the original.

According to Schwartz, the first printed mention of Parmigiana di melanzane is in the very first Neapolitan cookbook, Vincenzo Corrado's "Il Cuoco Galante" (The Gallant Cook), published in 1765. Schwartz notes that the Neapolitan dish has not changed much over the centuries and that it differs from the modern American version in that "the eggplant is hardly ever breaded before frying, and the sauce and the cheeses -- mozzarella and Parmigiano -- are used quite sparingly."

True southern Italy Parmigiana is more like a light gratin, with fried vegetables layered in a dish with tomato sauce (usually but not always), mozzarella and Parmigiano-Reggiano and fresh basil. It is served warm or room temperature.

This recipe, based on one published in Schwartz's book "Naples at Table" (HarperCollins, $27.50), has since been adapted by the author. According to Schwartz, "The more oil you use for the frying, the less the eggplant will absorb. So don't stint. Use a good one-third inch." If you can get the narrow, light-purple eggplants often labeled Japanese, so much the better. "The shape works well for arranging in the pan," and "they have many fewer seeds than the big 'Sicilian' ones."



2 tablespoons kosher salt

3 pounds eggplant

1 to 1 1/2 cups extra-virgin olive oil

4 cups smooth tomato sauce, either marinara or meat

10 ounces fresh mozzarella, thinly sliced (about 1 cup)

1 cup basil leaves, torn if they are very large

1 1/2 cups grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

1. Dissolve the salt in 3 quarts of water. Wash and dry the eggplant. Cut lengthwise into 1/2-inch slices. Peel the "end" slices to expose the flesh on both sides. Put the slices in the salted water and soak for 30 minutes, then dry thoroughly, pressing firmly to blot out moisture.

2. In a deep, wide skillet or Dutch oven, heat about 1/3 inch of the oil until a slice of the eggplant sizzles immediately when you dip it in. Fry a few slices at a time until dark golden on both sides. Drain them on absorbent paper as they are done.

3. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spread about 3/4 cup of sauce over the bottom of an 8-by-12-inch (or 11-inch round) baking dish that you don't mind bringing to the table. Place a layer of eggplant on the sauce, then a layer using half the mozzarella, another 1/2 cup sauce, 1/3 cup of the basil leaves, and finally 1/2 cup grated Parmigiano. Repeat with a second layer of eggplant, the remaining 1/2 cup of mozzarella, 1/2 cup sauce, 1/3 cup basil leaves, and 1/2 cup Parmigiano, then a third layer of eggplant. Top the eggplant with the remaining basil leaves, the remaining sauce, and the last of the Parmigiano. The dish may be prepared ahead to this point and refrigerated.

4. Bake for 30 minutes, or until bubbly. (Note that it will take longer if the dish has been refrigerated.) Let rest for at least 15 minutes before serving. It can be served at room temperature, but serving it warm is better.

Makes 6 to 8 servings.

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