Until I tried eggplant Parmesan in the region where the cheese comes from, I always thought of it as one of the heaviest options on the menu in any red sauce restaurant. The eggplant is usually breaded and fried (not that there's anything wrong with that), and the gooey mozzarella is right on the edge of overwhelming even for this formaggio junkie. But in Parma they serve an almost elegant rendition, with very thinly sliced eggplant layered with nothing more than tomato sauce and grana padano, the poor man's Parmigiano. I've been wanting to try it at home for years but never had the motivation until the other night when my consort called to say he was on his way and the cupboard was bare of high-priced protein. Not only was this rendition substantially cheaper than the usual recipe, but we wound up fighting over the leftovers. Sometimes less really is more.
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Because I had no time, I skipped the frying altogether and used a technique I learned from Roger Vergé's great recipe for an eggplant-zucchini-tomato-cheese gratin: Roast the peeled and salted-and-peppered eggplant slices on a well-oiled baking sheet at 425 degrees for at least 10 minutes. Frying would have used about 16 times as much oil, because eggplant has a secret O-Cel-O life. I made a quick sauce using the two-thirds of a can of tomato puree I had frozen months ago, with a couple of cloves of garlic, a couple of hefty pinches of dried basil and lots of hot red pepper flakes. And then I just started grating chunks of the four-pound wedge of "Parmesan" the nice Wisconsin cheese people sent me many, many months ago. That cut my cheese cost to zero, but even grana would be affordable. As it turned out, the relatively bland cheese was the weakest link in the whole dish and it didn't even matter.
The eggplant made a decent dinner with a salad of raw Tuscan kale, julienned and dressed with lemon juice and olive oil plus a ton of garlic and a little more of that lame cheese. (Sorta like this.) But the next day it was spectacular, and the day after that even more so. Both the flavor and texture just kept improving. I ate it cold in wedges as it was intended, but Bob had it on bread for breakfast, like bruschetta. It turns out that cutting so far back on the cheese etc. made it all about the eggplant. The only bad part is that I figured this all out just when the main ingredient is being displaced at the Greenmarket. At least there's spaghetti squash.
Regina Schrambling is best known for her acerbic Web site, gastropoda.com, and blog, gastriques.blogspot.com, but proudest of being a two-time refugee from The New York Times. She left the national desk in 1983 to enroll in the New York Restaurant School and was lured back as deputy editor of the Dining section, from which she resigned in 2002 to become a contract writer for the Los Angeles Times food section. She writes for magazines including Metropolitan Home, New York, Real Food, and Edible Brooklyn, as well as Slate and Salon.
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