Erica and Mo’s Eggplant Parmigiano
I don’t ruminate over my childhood now the way I did when I was in my twenties; that type of self-analysis feels more like a dead end as life goes on. But childhood food memories do pop up all the time. I seem to remember tastes and smells more than I do words and actions; maybe that’s one reason I chose cooking for a career. Lately I’ve been thinking about my mother’s eggplant parmigiano. It was my all-time favorite dish as a kid, her version of an exemplary classic of the Southern Italian kitchen.
She made it exactly the way her father had, as a hybrid Sicilian-Neapolitan version he had come up with. It contained slices of hard-boiled eggs tucked between bread-crumbed, fried eggplant, tomatoes, and mozzarella, and it had a whiff of cinnamon (a Sicilian touch). The egg slices gave the dish its unforgettable lushness. My mother made eggplant parmigiano often, knowing how much we all loved it. The leftovers went into eggplant parmigiano heroes, one of the most sublime hot sandwiches in the world, I believe. When my mother started working full-time, my parents hired a bent-over Italian lady, Rose, to help out around the home. She had advanced diabetes and several amputated toes. Her favorite, and just about only, real chore was Lemon Pledging the furniture. Sad old Rose also had a gas problem, which made my sister and me howl with laughter until she ordered us to get down on our knees and beg god’s forgiveness or else we’d go straight to hell. This scared us, so we did stop laughing, at least for a time.
Rose took over the job of making eggplant parmigiano, putting together three or four baking pans at a time and freezing them so my sister and I could defrost and reheat one when my parents went out to dinner, which was often. Rose’s eggplant wasn’t as good as my mother’s, but she was instructed about the egg slices, so they were good enough. These were favorite evenings for my sister and me. The smell of the eggplant parmigiano heating up in the oven in the warm, parentless house was the smell of preteen freedom.
Eggplant parmigiano was always a winter food in our family. The version I’ve been cooking lately has a more summery feel to it, since I make it with a fresh, quick-seared tomato sauce (my mother made a simmered sauce with canned tomatoes), but I’ve included the eggs and cinnamon that were always present, touches that really made it special. And since it is still the warm part of the year I add fresh basil and marjoram. (I don’t distinctly remember any herb in my mother’s, though there may have been parsley.) Also I’ve decided that egg-dipping and bread-crumbing the eggplant slices is too messy, so I just dust them in seasoned flour. Since I’ve tinkered with the recipe in several small ways, I guess I’d have to say it isn’t really my grandfather’s and mother’s anymore. It is updated, meaning just a tad lighter. So now the recipe belongs to all of us.
Erica and Mo’s Eggplant Parmigiano
12 summer plum tomatoes, seeded and cut into small dice
Extra-virgin olive oil
2 summer garlic cloves, thinly sliced
Freshly ground black pepper
5 large marjoram sprigs, the leaves chopped
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
3 or 4 scrapings fresh nutmeg
A generous pinch of ground cinnamon
3 medium summer eggplants, cut into thin rounds, the ends discarded
A 1-pound ball of mozzarella
2 hard-boiled eggs, thinly sliced
A handful of basil leaves, lightly chopped
3/4 cup grated Pecorino cheese
Place the tomatoes in a colander and sprinkle them with salt. Let them drain for about 30 minutes (ripe summer tomatoes, even the plum varieties, are often very juicy, and you’ll want to get rid of the excess liquid so it doesn’t make your dish watery).
In a wide skillet, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium-low heat. Add the garlic and sauté until very lightly golden. Add the tomatoes, spreading them out, turn the heat to high, season with black pepper, and cook at a lively bubble for 5 minutes. You’ll want to stir the tomatoes only once or twice while cooking to avoid creating too much steam. Turn off the heat and add the marjoram. Taste to see if more salt is needed.
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
In a large sauté pan, heat an inch of olive oil over medium heat. While it is heating, pour the flour onto a large plate, mix in the nutmeg and cinnamon, and season with salt and black pepper. Dredge the eggplant slices in the flour on both sides, shaking off excess flour (loose flour can burn on the bottom of the skillet). Test to see if the oil is hot by dipping the edge of one of the eggplant pieces in it. If it sizzles, it’s hot enough. Fry the eggplant in batches, turning them when golden to cook both sides. Add more oil at any time, if needed. The smell of cinnamon-coated eggplant frying in olive oil is kind of amazing. As the pieces are ready, use tongs to transfer them to paper towels to drain.
Spread a thin layer of the tomato sauce in the bottom of an approximately 8-by-11-inch baking dish (or an equivalent oval dish). Add a layer of eggplant, a layer of mozzarella, and a layer of egg slices. Scatter on some of the basil and sprinkle with Pecorino. Pour on another layer of tomato sauce, and then make another layer of eggplant, mozzarella, the rest of the egg and basil, and a sprinkling of Pecorino. Make a final layer using the remaining eggplant. Pour on the remaining tomato sauce and any remaining mozzarella. Sprinkle with Pecorino and grind a little pepper over the top (don’t put any eggs on top. They need to be tucked inside to stay moist).
Bake, uncovered, until bubbling and lightly golden, about 20 minutes. Remove from the oven and let stand for about 15 minutes before serving, or serve at room temperature if you like (as it is often served in Naples).