Parmigiana di melanzane Puglia
Preparation - Medium
Despite its name, this southern Italian dish has nothing to do with Parma except possibly the use of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese between the layers of eggplant. Parmigiana di melanzane, often mistakenly called melanzane alla parmigiana, was one of the great dishes that immigrants from Puglia and other parts of the Italian South brought with them to the United States. It has become a staple of old-fashioned Italian-American restaurants where, as with most immigrant foods, it got decked out with an abundance and richness that is absent from the appealing simplicity of the original.
This may seem like a complicated preparation, but much of it can be made ahead of time and, indeed, since the dish is more often eaten at room temperature than it is hot from the oven, the whole thing can be, and often is, prepared in the morning to serve at dinner that evening. Originally, it went in the oven after the bread had come out. It is often made with zucchini instead of eggplant, and, in wintertime, with artichokes, sliced and fried. This is the simplest, most everyday version of the dish.
PEEL the eggplant and slice crosswise in slices about 1/2 inch thick. Stack the slices in a colander, sprinkling layers generously with salt, set a weight on top (a can of tomatoes on a plate will do very well), and leave to stand for 1 hour; then rinse the slices well in running water and dry them with paper towels.
MEANWHILE, grate the mozzarella on the large holes of a cheese grater and set aside. Beat the egg with a fork in a soup plate with 2 tablespoons of water. Place the flour in another soup plate.
ADD olive oil to a frying pan to a depth of 1/2 inch and heat on a medium burner to frying temperature (360 degrees F., when a little cube of bread quickly turns golden and crisp). Lightly dip each dried slice of eggplant in flour and then in beaten egg, and fry the slices, turning them once, until they are golden brown on both sides. Drain the fried eggplant slices on a cake rack covered with paper towels.
HEAT the oven to 425 degrees F.
PUT a couple of spoonfuls of warm tomato sauce in the bottom of a 2-quart ceramic or earthenware oven dish and layer the eggplant slices in the dish, scattering over each layer an abundance of grated ParmigianoReggiano, more tomato sauce, a handful of grated mozzarella, and a sprinkle of dried basil and black pepper. On the topmost layer of eggplant, spread an abundance of tomato sauce and a scattering of grated Parmigiano-Reggiano. Bake, uncovered, in the preheated oven for 45 minutes. Sprinkle with fresh basil. The eggplant can be eaten hot, but is best at room temperature.
MEATBALLS FOR EGGPLANT PARMESAN
For special occasions, Pugliese cooks may garnish the tomato sauce with tiny meatballs, and add slices of hard-boiled egg and mortadella sausage to the layers. To me, the egg and sausage seem to be too much, but the meatballs add a litile substance to what is a very simple dish. Here's how to make them:
1/2 cup unseasoned bread crumbs
1/2 pound finely ground lean veal or pork, or veal and pork mixed together
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
Yolk of 1 large egg
1/4 cup finely minced flat-leaf parsley
2 tablespoons finely minced basil, if desired
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
THOROUGHLY combine the bread crumbs with all the other ingredients except the olive oil. Dampen your hands with a little water and form the mixture into small meatballs about the size of marbles.
HEAT the olive oil in a saute' pan over medium heat and quickly brown the meatballs all over.
DISTRIBUTE the meatballs over each layer of eggplant slices in the dish.