This exceptionally delicious Eggplant Parmesan has all the rich-tasting, melty-warm flavours of a classic Parmigiana di Melanzane, minus the frying. A vegetarian dish that is pure heaven as a main served with crusty bread and a mixed green salad.
I remember on a few occasions helping my mother-in-law fry breaded eggplant when she was making her very delicious Parmigiana di Melanzane. As delicious as it was, the thought of breading and frying all that eggplant made me vow never to attempt it at home. That is, until a few years ago I discovered Jamie Oliver’s recipe from Jamie’s Italy cookbook that by-passes all these fastidious steps and simply bakes the eggplant. His recipe, adapted by Marian Burros for the New York Times, with its reinterpretation of a traditional dish, is one of the most dowloaded with rave reviews. It’s a game-changer and it’s fantastic.
A notoriously heavy dish, this lightened up version of eggplant parmesan is no less delicious and so much easier to prepare. Eggplant slices are brushed with a bit of olive oil then baked in a hot oven until browned and pliable. Meanwhile, you simmer a very simple tomato sauce with lots of garlic and fresh basil to top the slices. Slabs of mozzarella and fluffy Parmigiano are then layered in between to make a strongly flavoured and strongly evocative dish. Like all simple dishes, however, attention to detail is key. Before you get in your kitchen, read on for all the tips to make this dish a success, and enjoy one of the best dinners imaginable.
Preparing the eggplant
TO SALT OR NOT TO SALT
Apparently, almost all eggplants varieties used to be notoriously bitter. Salting them for a few hours would help draw out the bitterness. Nowadays, eggplants are bred to be more mild in flavour and essentially bitter-less so it is no longer necessary to salt them for this reason. Nevertheless, almost every recipe I come across calls for it because it prevents the spongy eggplant from absorbing too much oil, and it draws out excess moisture. I don’t find any significant difference in the amount of oil they soak up, but I do think even a half hour of salting adds flavour and draws out sufficient moisture to improve the dish tremendously. If this seems too fastidious for you, feel free to skip this step.
Update: I no longer salt the eggplant! However, the recipe will still include instructions for salting in case you prefer this method.
HOW TO SLICE THE EGGPLANT
As opposed to Jamie Oliver’s recipe which calls for rounds, I like to cut the eggplants lengthwise in 1/2-inch slices. It makes lining the casserole easier and gives it a little more structure. I do not recommend peeling the eggplants ever which would cause the eggplant slice to turn very flimsy once cooked.
BREADING OR NO BREADING
While a bit of crunch is appealing, I’ve been making my eggplant parmesan without breading for years. I like the lightness and purer eggplant flavour you get when there are no distracting breadcrumbs. I also find the breadcrumbs turn soggy anyway when topped with the sauce and cheese so I like to omit them. If you can’t do without the breadcrumbs, a good option is to brown the breadcrumbs in a skillet with a little oil, then top the assembled casserole. Interestingly, breadcrumbs are not added to a classic Eggplant Parmigiana in Italy.
BAKING VS FRYING
A classic Melanzane di Parmigiana recipe will have you frying the eggplant slices in copious amounts of oil. Admittedly, this does make them melt-in-your-mouth tender and delicious. But to me, this makes the dish too oily and rich, not to mention extremely tedious. It is a step I am more than happy to avoid. When baked, the eggplant softens perfectly and turns beautifully golden brown, sans the frying.
Ingredients for eggplant parmesan
The ingredient list for this eggplant parmesan could not be simpler so try and use the best quality you can afford and find.
- Eggplants: Regardless of the variety, the best eggplants are young, shiny, and as fresh and firm as possible. For this recipe, you want the globe, deep-purple variety. If all you can find are large, soft, super seedy eggplants, I strongly recommend you take the time to salt them.
- Tomato sauce: Here you can use a homemade sauce or a good-quality jarred sauce. See more details below.
- Parmigiano-Reggiano: Aka parmesan cheese. Given the title of this dish, and the effort you are putting into it, please do splurge for the real-deal here. The stuff from the green container just will not do.
- Fresh Mozzarella: Surprisingly, Jamie Oliver’s recipe does not call for mozzarella cheese. I am always trying to make dishes less cheesy but in this case, when I omitted it, I really missed it. I like to use fresh mozzarella but if you can’t find a reasonably priced one, just go with regular mozzarella. It will still be delicious.
- Extra-Virgin Olive oil: You need quite a bit of olive to brush the eggplants so I find it hard to use an expensive bottle for this. I use a mid-range olive oil for brushing, and save my prized one for the finishing drizzles.
- Fresh Basil: Don’t skip on this fresh herb. I find it essential to add flavour to the sauce and the overall dish.
The tomato sauce
I am always a proponent of making pasta sauces from scratch. For this dish, because I’m only human, I like to keep the sauce very simple and easy. A good-quality, jarred passata, with a glug of good olive oil, garlic slices, fresh basil, salt and pepper, and nothing more, works wonderfully. However, not all jarred passatas are created equally so be sure to check the ingredients. I absolutely love this one — made with the purest and freshest tomatoes, I could drink it with a straw. This is another favourite I couldn’t live without. If you buy a prepared jarred marinara sauce, be sure it is not one that is strongly flavoured so it doesn’t compete with the mild eggplant and cheese.
Note: A minor conundrum with this dish is that while you don’t want it too saucy, if using only one jar of passata sauce, you may come up a little short when assembling the dish. This is particularly true if you leave the sauce cooking for too long and uncovered. To prevent this, add 1/2 cup water to the sauce, place a lid slightly ajar over the pot, and cook on low. Keep an eye on it and don’t overcook it. Ditto if you go the route of using 1 can of whole tomatoes.
How to make eggplant parmesan
This will be one of the greatest, low-calorie, eggplant parmesan recipes you will ever have. Easy to prepare and tastes fantastic. Nevertheless, it may require more time to prepare than you’d like for a weeknight dish. If this is the case, be sure to set aside a slow weekend to make it. The leftovers will delight you come the busy week-day, or week-night.
Here is the step-by-step:
- Slice and salt the eggplant. Cut 3 medium-sized eggplants into 1/2-inch slices lengthwise. Lightly sprinkle salt on both sides of the eggplant. Place in a colander to drain for about 30 minutes (salting the eggplant is optional, see above). Using paper towels, wipe away as much of the excess moisture and salt as possible. If it seems like the eggplant slices are still covered in salt, you may need to rinse them, then dry really well.
- Roast the eggplant. Brush both sides of eggplant slices with oil, and place in a single layer on one or two large baking sheets. The eggplants should not overlap or they will not brown nicely. Roast in a hot 425 degree oven until golden brown, 25-30 minutes. Set aside.
- Make the tomato sauce. While the eggplants are roasting, place a large saucepan over medium heat. Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil and add the sliced garlic. Sauté until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Add passata, or a jarred sauce of your choice. Cover, reduce heat to low, and simmer 15 to 30 minutes. Alternatively, you could use canned tomatoes with their juices, breaking up whole tomatoes with your hands. Next, add torn fresh basil leaves and season with just a little salt and pepper, if necessary. Keep in mind the eggplant and the cheese will be salty so don’t use too much salt in the sauce.
- Assemble the dish. Spoon a small amount of the tomato sauce into a 9×11-inch casserole dish. Add a single layer of eggplant and a sprinkle of parmigiano. If using, scatter a few chunks of fresh mozzarella. Repeat until all ingredients are used, ending with a little sauce, a sprinkling of parmigiano, and mozzarella.
- Bake. Place in preheated oven until eggplant mixture is bubbly and centre is hot, 30 to 35 minutes depending on size of pan and thickness of layers.
- Let it rest (!!!). It is super important to allow this dish to rest for at least 15 minutes before serving. In fact, eggplant parmigiana should be enjoyed warm and not hot. I like to wait closer to 30 minutes as it gives the juices time to soak in and the flavours intensify. If you rush this, and slice it too soon, you will have a fall-apart, messy dish on your hands.
What to serve with eggplant parmesan
Eggplant parmesan is deliciously satisfying vegetarian dish on its own with perhaps a little crusty bread on the side. A light green salad is always welcome to cut through all the richness.
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- 3 medium eggplants
- Kosher salt
- 1/4 cup Extra-virgin olive oil, plus 2 tablespoons divided
- 2 large garlic cloves thinly sliced
- 1 large jar of passata (about 700 ml) or 1 28-ounce can no-salt plum tomatoes or crushed tomatoes (you should have about 4 cups sauce)
- ½ cup packed fresh basil leaves, roughly choppedd plus more for garnish
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 3/4 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or slightly more, if needed
- 12 ounces fresh mozzarella, torn into bite-size pieces
- Preheat oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit. Line two large, rimmed baking sheets with parchment paper.
- Update: I no longer salt the eggplant! However, the recipe will still include instructions for salting in case you prefer this method: Trim the stem ends of each eggplant. Stand the eggplant vertically, and slice to make 1/2-inch thick long slices. Sprinkle each eggplant slab with kosher salt on both sides and place in a colander to drain for half an hour (this step is optional, see notes). Using paper towels, wipe away as much of the excess moisture and salt as possible. If it seems like the eggplant slices are still covered in salt, you may need to rinse them, then dry really well.
- Arrange the eggplant slices on a single layer on the sheetpans. Place 1/4 cup olive oil in a small bowl. Brush both sides of each eggplant lightly with the oilve oil. Season with freshly cracked black pepper. Roast until tender and slightly golden, about 25 to 30 minutes. You may need to rotate the pans halfway through baking for more even cooking. Remove pans from the oven and set aside. Leave oven on if assembling the casserole right away but reduce temperature to 400° F.
- While the eggplant is roasting, make the tomato sauce. In a medium saucepan over medium heat, warm 2 tablespoons olive oil until shimmering. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute. Stir in the passata (or canned tomatoes) and 1/2 cup water and bring to a gentle simmer. Cover, reduce heat to as low and cook for 15-30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove the sauce from heat and add the 1/2 cup choppedd basil and a few cracks of pepper to taste. Taste and add a pinch of salt, if needed.
- To assemble, spoon a small amount of the sauce on the bottom of a 9x11, or 9x13, casserole dish. Arrange a single layer of eggplant slices over the sauce. Sprinkle with some of the reggiano cheese, fresh mozzarella, and drizzle with a thin layer of tomato sauce. Repeat to make one (or two) more layers, ending with the sauce and cheese on top.
- Bake on the lower rack of the oven at 400° F, uncovered, until the sauce is bubbly and the top is lightly golden, about 30-35 minutes. Allow to rest and cool for at least 15 minutes to give it time to set. Serve garnished with additional basil leaves and extra parm, if desired.
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