Admittedly, this is a time consuming dish, but one that makes for great leftovers and freezes very nicely. I like to make it when eggplants are at their local best. These eggplants come from my neighbor Beppi’s garden, so I know how fresh and flawless they are. You might find yourself feeding a crowd in August, and the beauty of this dish is that it can be prepared entirely ahead and baked at the last minute, for stress-free entertaining.
My version of it includes a layer of chopped spinach blended with ricotta. I find that in addition to the usual mozzarella and red sauce, the ricotta and spinach lighten the dish considerably, and add a green flavor to the richness of the mozzarella and breaded eggplant.
The process begins with making the tomato sauce. My tomato sauce is a simple combination of sauteed onion, a touch of sweet green pepper plus canned whole peeled tomatoes and some basil leaves. Today, I substituted a tablespoon of pesto for the basil leaves, since I had plenty of pesto on hand.
The most time-consuming process is the breading and cooking of the eggplant slices. Rather than frying the eggplant, I’ve decided to roast the slices on sheet pans in the oven. This is my mother’s preferred method of getting the slices crisp without frying. Believe me, it’s brilliant–not only do you not have to slave over a skillet (or two) of hot oil, frying batch after batch of eggplant slices, but the finished dish is that much lighter. I was reluctant to try it, but I’m glad I did–I’ll never fry them again for parmiggiana.
The recipe here is for a very large tray of eggplant that could feed 10 persons. It’s best to make a large tray and enjoy the leftovers for a couple of days–it tastes even better the second day.
Melanzane alla Parmigiana
Serves 10 – 12
5 large eggplants
1 recipe basic tomato sauce or about 3.3 qts (see below)
3 c all-purpose flour
10 large eggs
approx. 8 c seasoned breadcrumbs
olive oil for greasing baking pans
2 large balls fresh mozzarella, sliced thinly
16 oz. of fresh ricotta
2 – 10 oz. pkgs frozen chopped spinach
3 c grated pecorino romano cheese
1/4 tsp nutmeg
salt and pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
Partially peel the eggplant, leaving stripes of black peel (some peel adds flavor, but I don’t like to leave it entirely unpeeled because I feel that the peel gets too hard and leathery if left on entirely).
Slice crosswise into 1/3″ thick slices.
Dredge each slice first in flour, then beaten eggs, then seasoned breadcrumbs, then set aside on sheetpans that have been spread with a light coating of olive oil. Make sure to tap each slice after flouring to remove excess flour. Also, allow egg to drip off before placing in crumbs.
Roast in a preheated 400 degree oven (with convection, if you have it) for approximately 30 minutes, or until golden brown. After 15 minutes, alternate positions of trays in the oven for equal browning.
While eggplant slices are roasting,prepare the ricotta mixture: drain and squeeze the spinach in small bundles and set aside.
In a mixing bowl, combine spinach, ricotta, half the grated cheese, a teaspoon of black pepper, and the nutmeg.
Begin layering the eggplant in the roasting pan, beginning with a layer of tomato sauce along the bottom.
Arrange eggplant slices, then top with half of ricotta mixture, mozzarella, 2 tablespoons of grated cheese, and several ladles of tomato sauce. NOTE: you’ll need much more sauce than you think– ladle it on freely, even if you think it will be too moist.
Repeat with a second layer and top generously with sauce, mozzarella and grated cheese.
Cover with foil and bake in 350 degree oven for approximately 45 minutes, or until bubbling. Uncover and bake for about 10 minutes. Let rest for at least 10 minutes before cutting and serving. May be frozen in foil packages with additional tomato sauce and reheated in the oven.