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If you love "Eggplant Parmesan" as served in most Italian restaurants, you are in for a treat, because this simple grilled version just runs circles around it.
Most recipes begin by breading and frying the eggplant. The problem is that eggplant is like a sponge and it soaks up enough grease to slick back Fonzi's hair. Then it is buried in canned red sauce and cheese that is one electron from being plastic.
The frying completely masks the flavor of the eggplant and stringy pizza cheese adds nothing but chewiness and calories.
Great eggplant parm should taste like, well, eggplant, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, and fresh tomatoes. We get there by grilling the eggplant rather than frying it, using real Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese from Italy (vastly superior to American parm), and a home-made tomato sauce. Grilling leaves the eggplant's natural flavor intact, adds a nuttiness and sweetness, and doesn't turn it mushy if you do it right.
In most cooking the quality of the input controls the quality of the output, and that is especially true for this dish. Right now in late summer is the best time for eggplant. Late summer is also the season of fresh tomatoes and fresh herbs, and, although canned tomatoes and dried herbs work fine in this recipe, there is no substitute for fresh basil and fresh oregano.
Trust me, once you try this you'll never settle for the greasy plasticky stuff again.
2 medium sized eggplants
1/4 teaspoon table salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 large portobello mushroom (optional)
4 tablespoons olive oil
4 tablespoons fresh oregano, chopped
4 tablespoons fresh basil, chopped
1 cup marinara sauce or canned tomato sauce
1/2 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
1/4 cup fresh mozzarella
About the eggplants. Occasionally you will see recipes that call for you to salt the eggplants and let them sit to reduce bitterness. I've just never found this to be necessary with fresh eggplants.
About the Parmigiano-Reggiano. Please do not use anything labeled "parmesan" in a green toilet paper tube. It barely resembles the real thing from Italy, the "king of cheeses", Parmigiano-Reggiano (at right). Real Italian Parm has a distinctive flavor, especially after it melts, that really amps this dish over the top. Save the stuff in the green cardboard toilet paper tube for Spaghetti-Os. Click here to read more about real Parmigiano-Reggiano and how it is made.
About the tomato sauce. Make your own grilled marinara sauce. That's righ, grill the tomatoes and other ingredients in the sauce. Click here to read the recipe.
About the mozzarella. Try to get fresh mozzarella. It is often in the deli counter still floating in milky whey or water. It works a lot better than the other stuff in this (and most other recipes).
Riffing. This recipe allows you a lot of flexibility. Skip the mushrooms if you wish. Add more sauce. Add fresh tomatoes, add thyme, use dried herbs, use sauce from a jar, make a blend of other cheeses, add hot pepper flakes, riff away.
Optional. If fresh basil is not available, dried works fine. In fact I once did this dish by sprinkling dried whole basil leaves on the eggplant and under the sauce, and by the time the cheese had melted and dinner was served, the basil remained crunchy. That was fun! Keep in mind, these were whole leaves, not flakes. Another, excellent option, is to add a tablespoon of pesto sauce to the tomato sauce. Splendido!
Serve with. A tossed green salad with an oil and vinegar dressing, a big booming red wine, and some grilled garlic bread. I like to cut off hunks of eggplant and put it on the bread and make open face sandwiches.
1) Preheat the grill to medium heat and use a classic 2-zone setup.
2) There is a trick to reduce any stray bitterness: Remove some, but not all of the skin. This also makes it easier to cut and chew. The skin has a lot of flavor, but it can be tough. Peel the eggplants partially by making long vertical stripes. If you don't stripe it, the skin can form hard leathery bands that are difficult to cut. Now slice the tubes into 1/2" thick disks and put them in a large bowl. Add the mushroom to the bowl. Sprinkle with the salt, pepper, and olive oil, and toss them until lightly coated with oil and seasoning. Add more oil if necessary.
3) Grill the mushroom and eggplant over medium high direct heat until they begin to soften but not until they are limp. Back in the bowl they go. Leave the grill running.
4) In a metal baking pan, spread the eggplants out on the bottom. They can overlap if necessary. Cut the mushroom into bite-size chunks and scatter them on top of the slices. Sprinkle on the herbs. Then spoon the tomato sauce on making sure each slice of eggplant is well covered. Next goes the Parmigiano-Reggiano, then the mozzarella.
5) Put the pan on the grill in the indirect heat zone and close the lid. Depending on your grill it will take about 20 minutes for the cheeses to melt. You can wait until it begins to brown slightly, but fresh mozz is slow to brown.
All text and photos are Copyright (c) 2010 By Meathead, and all rights are reserved
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