Remembering food experiences with loved ones warms the soul (hopefully, that’s not just an Italian thing). Today I was reminiscing about my Italian grandpa from Bari. He came to the US through Ellis Island when he was a teenager. He was a short little guy, solid and strong from physical labor (at one time he worked backstage sets at 20th Century Fox in Los Angeles). He loved life and was very passionate. And he loved food!
Grandpa lived with us for years and I have fond memories of him in the kitchen whipping up some fabulous tasting Italian dishes. However, what sticks in my mind at the moment is his eggplant. Why? Well, I know I’ve mentioned this before, but as a kid, having an eggplant sandwich was a favorite of mine.
My grandma would make the best focaccia bread and my grandpa would slice it, layer a piece or two of cooked eggplant on it and call it a “sangwich.” While my friends at school were unpacking their peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on white Wonder bread, I was unpacking an eggplant sandwich on focaccia. Yes, there were times when kids made fun of my “sangwich” but I sluffed it off – I know they were just envious.
I try to grow my own eggplant in the summer, some years I’m more successful than others in yield and crop. So I buy them at farmer’s markets when possible. When eggplant goes on sale at the market in the winter months, I grab a few. Mary Ann Esposito has some good tips on picking out the best eggplant:
“On your next purchase of this wonderful vegetable, bring your magnifying glass. I grow eggplant and have always found that if you pick it young, it will not be bitter. Most cooks that I know use it for making the classic eggplant parmigiana, but that too is subject to lots of interpretation.
Eggplant straight out of the garden is firm and shiny, not shriveled- looking or spongy to the touch, which is often the case when choosing it in the supermarket. When I do have to buy it in the supermarket, I always ask the produce manager if he or she can open a new crate.”
One of my favorite ways to cook it is to make eggplant parmigiana. “Back in the day” I would rate Italian restaurants by the flavor and gusto of their eggplant parmesan. If the restaurant used too much breading, or the sauce wasn’t robust enough, or “whatever” I would give it a low rating and in most cases, never go back. Thank goodness my palate has matured, however, I still love a dish of good eggplant parmigiana!
While visiting Ashland recently, we ate dinner at Vinny’s (sadly no longer open. Vinny retired.) and I had the eggplant parmesan of course!
Can you tell which one is Vinny? And he did a lot of the cooking! We pulled him out of the kitchen for this picture. His wife is on the left. So personable, she goes to each table and talks to the guests.
Here is a simple eggplant parmesan recipe I love and it never disappoints in flavor.
You can actually skip the step of salting the eggplant and letting it drain for an hour. Sometimes I do this and sometimes I don’t, just depends on the time I have and the age of the eggplant. Like Mary Ann Esposito, if I’ve just picked it off the plant in the backyard, no need. But if the eggplant was purchased last week at the grocery store (not a farmer’s market) then I might make it a point to salt it and drain to make sure there isn’t any bitterness.
It may seem like a lot of oil is used in this recipe, and some is soaked up in the eggplant during cooking, but you can drain off excess before assembling the dish for the oven. I’d also recommend wiping out the pan between batches to remove any excess flour that may have landed in the pan. It can burn and turn the oil dark.
These are also good eaten as a snack after frying and draining. Just cook a little longer – until slightly crispy. I could eat them right out of the pan after frying. In fact, sometimes I will cut the eggplant in smaller finger-sized portions and cook to crispness, and serve with a little tomato sauce for appetizers.
Ready, set, layer!
I usually put a little sauce in the bottom of the pan to prevent the eggplant from sticking.
Spoon sauce, both cheeses and a little basil on each layer of eggplant.
The cheeses melt so nicely and blend their flavors together.
And it’s dinner!
I realize that eggplant is an acquired taste for many. It is such a versatile food that it’s worth a try I promise! And the leftovers in a “sangwich” the next day are heavenly.