Why do so many dishes suffer from too much of a good thing? What happened to a light touch, to finesse? For a recipe (or restaurant) to attract attention today means to go Kardashian – too much butter in the biscuits, too many fatty bites of pork belly, too much truffle oil on the fries and too much cheese and over-smoked bacon on everything else. Both at home and dining out, our imaginations have little to do as we’re hit over the head with the obvious.
The typically overdone eggplant Parmesan is a great example of a dish that begs for a more refined touch. Thick breaded and fried eggplant slices smothered in tinny tomato sauce and baked under a blanket of rubbery cheeses is too heavy a production for the poor eggplant that gets completely lost in the red and white sea.
Farmers’ markets have plenty of beautiful eggplant this month, all shapes and styles. Let’s deconstruct the classic Italian family-style dish down to its modern minimalist best. First, skip the frying and instead boil the eggplant in salted water. Sounds weird, sure, but this method simplifies with great results. No beaten egg, no flour or bread crumbs, no hot oil, and oil clean up and no fretting about whether to salt the eggplant slices and wait around. And who says the eggplant has to be cut into slabs? Quickly dice it into bite-sized cubes that cook in minutes and are easy to scoop and serve. The boiled eggplant has a lighter taste, but plenty of it.
In a few minutes, you can make your own quick tomato sauce with fresh Tennessee tomatoes, onion, garlic and oil (see below). If using a prepared sauce, try to aim for ones that have these same few ingredients. Use a light touch with the sauce, leaving bare spots so the eggplant is visible.
Now add one good cheese, maybe two, not the Domino’s five. Shred a nice chunk of Parmesan and sprinkle on top near the end of baking. Add an optional second cheese like fresh mozzarella that melts nicely in this dish.
- About 3 pounds eggplant, any variety, to make about 10 to 12 cups 1-inch cubes
- ¼ cup olive oil
- 1 cup chopped onion
- 2 to 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 4 cups chopped fresh tomatoes
- Salt and black pepper, to taste
- ¾ cup freshly grated Parmesan
- 4 to 8 ounces fresh mozzarella, cut into small cubes, optional
- Fresh basil leaves, optional
Bring a large pot of salty water to a boil.
Cut the eggplant into 1-inch cubes (don’t peel unless you want to). Boil the eggplant until tender, about 10 minutes. Drain in a colander.
Cook the onion in the olive oil over medium heat in a large saucepan or skillet until translucent and tender, about 10 minutes.
Add the garlic and continue to cook another few minutes. Add the tomatoes and simmer until soft and thickened, about 15 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.
Lightly grease a 3-quart casserole or 9 x 13-inch baking dish with olive oil. Place the drained eggplant in the dish. Spoon the tomatoes over the eggplant.
You can bake the eggplant now, or cover and refrigerate to bake later. If you want to serve it within a few hours, cover the casserole with foil and leave it at room temperature.
Bake, covered, at 375 degrees about 30 minutes, longer if the casserole was refrigerated.
Near the end of baking, remove the pan from the oven, uncover and sprinkle with the cheese. Bake an additional 5 to 10 minutes until the cheese is melted and the casserole is bubbly. Garnish with basil leaves as desired.