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Food For Thought: The Great Eggplant Parmigiana Smackdown

Nancy leson
Nancy's eggplant Parm

Gluttonous minds must think alike.  I just discovered that independently and on the same day Nancy Leson and I had both jonse'd for Eggplant Parmigiana – or as she describes it "a big fat, fabulous layer cake of  eggplant, cheese, and homemade tomato sauce."  

Nance likes her eggplant slices roasted  prior to layering with the rest of the stuff.  Here's how she does it, adapted from Lidia Bastianich's Lidia's Italian-American Kitchen.

Nancy’s Version of Lidia Bastianch’s Eggplant Parmigiana

Nancy: Lidia says use fresh mozzarella or Fontina. I use low-moisture whole milk mozz. Like
Stein, she prefers to fry her eggplant, but my preference is to roast it. Do yourself a favor
and make a nice tomato sauce by doing as I do:

Grab two cans of whole peeled tomatoes — a big one (28 ounces) and a smaller one (a 14-
15 ouncer) — I like Muir Glen. Break up the tomatoes with your fingers. Or be lazy and buy diced tomatoes. I won’t tell!

In a big frying pan or a medium saucepan (using a splatter-guard if you’ve got, and if you don’t got, get!) saute a cup of diced onion in some olive oil until translucent. Add a half-teaspoon dried oregano, a pinch of red pepper flakes and a minced garlic clove and cook that for a minute or two. Add the tomatoes and
their canned “sauce.”

Simmer over low heat – stirring and adding salt and black pepper to
taste. Now, go prepare this crazy-delish dish for which you’ll need:

Ingredients: 3 eggplant, about 1 pound each 1 tablespoon coarse sea salt or kosher salt some olive oil 2 cups grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese 12 fresh basil leaves 1 pound low-moisture mozzarella cheese, cut into slices 1/3-inch thick Homemade tomato sauce (see intro) To Prepare: Pre-heat the oven to 450 degrees. Trim the stems and ends from the eggplants. Cut each lengthwise into 1/2-inch thick slices and place in a colander. Sprinkle with coarse salt and let drain for 30 minutes, then use a paper towel to wipe the salt/liquid from the eggplant. Brush a big sheet-pan or a couple baking sheets with olive oil, and set the eggplant slices side by side on the sheet(s). Brush a bit of olive oil over the top of the eggplant. Bake for about 20 minutes till they are brown and a bit caramelized on the bottom side. Let cool until you can handle them. Turn the oven down to 375 degrees. Ladle enough sauce into a 9x13-inch baking dish to cover the bottom. Sprinkle with an even layer of grated Parmigiana, then top with a layer of eggplant, pressing it down gently. Tear a few leaves of basil over the eggplant, then ladle about 3/4 cup of sauce to coat the top evenly. Sprinkle an even layer of grated cheese over the sauce and top with a layer of mozzarella, using about one-third of the cheese. Continue layering twice more in this order: eggplant, basil, sauce, Parmigiana, mozzarella – ending with a top layer of mozzarella that leaves a border of about one inch around the edges of the baking dish. Drizzle sauce around the border of the baking dish. Sprinkle any extra Parm on top, then finish with a few decorative streaks or rounds of tomato sauce. Cover the baking dish loosely with aluminum foil and poke several holes in the foil with the tip of a knife. Bake 30 minutes. Uncover, and continue baking until the top layer of cheese is golden in spots, about 15 minutes. Let rest 10-15 minutes before serving. – Adapted from “Lidia’s Italian-American Kitchen”

Me, I bread and fry my eggplant, don't bother salting and have no qualms about using bagged, shredded mozzarella.   Here's how I make my utility red sauce or "gravy."  I use this for an old-school spaghetti and meatballs dinner   Last weekend I used the leftovers for the Eggplant Parm.

Stein's Red Sauce

Saute a battuto of minced celery, onion, carrot, anchovy, garlic and pancetta in lots of olive oil.   Work out your own proportions.  I'd stop at three anchovy fillets, though.  As for the garlic, let your conscience be your guide.

When golden, add two of those small cans of tomato paste.  I like Cento.    Mix the paste in with this battuto, then stir in enough chicken stock to make a thinner mixture than you'll want in the end.  If you have any Parmigiana cheese rinds, throw them in now.

Let simmer, stirring occasionally until the "gravy" has cooked down to the consistency you want.  At this point I usually add a double handful of pitted Kalamata olives and let it simmer another 15 minutes. 

"I will marry you if you promise not to make me eat eggplant." – Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Dick Stein joined KNKX in January 1992. He retired in 2020 after three decades on air. During his storied radio career, he hosted the morning jazz show, co-hosted and produced "Food for Thought" with Nancy Leson and wrote and directed the Jimmy Jazzoid live radio musical comedies and 100 episodes of Jazz Kitchen.