by Ari LeVaux
I have an eggplant Parmesan recipe that's mostly local, even in the middle of winter, and so quick and easy to prepare it could qualify as fast food.
Like many of my recipes, this one arose from having seasonal abundance of certain ingredients on my hands. In this case, tomatoes, eggplant and zucchini. For years, I solved this puzzle by making massive quantities of ratatouille, so much that I actually found myself needing to take a little break from that. The magical blending of those diverse ingredients can get a little old, especially after some time in the freezer. So now, I make breaded cutlets of the eggplant and zucchini, and oven tomato sauce of the tomatoes. This oven sauce, which I wrote about a few weeks ago, also includes other seasonal ingredients like onions, garlic and small amounts of zucchini. Today we focus on breaded cutlets. If you have breaded cutlets in the freezer, it's easy to come up with tomato sauce, one way or another. And if you don't have tomato sauce and eggplant or zucchini cutlets squirreled away, then guess what? Now is the ideal time to get on it.
When I started down this breadcrumb-strewn path, I was navigating for the eggplant Parmesan subs from Armando's Pizza, a Sicilian joint in the neighborhood where I grew up. Since leaving home in 1988, and again in 1999, this sub has been the one thing that I will not, cannot, complete a visit without eating. This is greater Boston we're talking about, where they have a thing or two to eat. But Armando's was more than just a great place to eat. It was a chance to be near Armando Paulo. Like many celebrated chefs, Armando would sometimes leave the kitchen to make the rounds of the dining room. It was a quick lap around the five booths, and the conversation was often little more than the statement, posed as a question and answered in kind: "How you doing."
He was a happy man who oozed charisma. People said the same about my dad, who died last week. When that happened, I placed the longest distance takeout order for subs, pizza and a tray of eggplant parm that I've ever made, and had them delivered, so my mom wouldn't have to feed the people coming over to comfort her. Just knowing that spread was there brought me comfort too.
Armando passed away about a year earlier, but his eggplant sub lives on. Back in the day, his daughter had divulged the process to me, but it isn't practical unless you have a deli slicer. Anyway, my way is more decadent. The slices are thicker and juicier, while the coating is thicker and crispier. That crispy coating grabs onto the red sauce and won't let go, and they make love with one another. Or at the very least, they impregnate one another.
These days, I skip the sub roll and make my egg/parm in trays. The recipe, basically, is to layer cutlets of breaded eggplant and zucchini in between layers of tomato sauce, along with cheese (provolone or mozzarella, ideally), fresh garlic (grated, pressed or pounded) and maybe some fresh veggies like spinach, basil, sweet peppers, tomatoes, and so on. Sometimes I include some greasy, crispy, browned burger, or shards of rotisserie chicken.
If your tomato sauce is thick, like my oven roasted tomato sauce is, dilute it with water to make it the consistency of Prego or similar store-bought marinara. And if you don't have any home made tomato sauce, buy a jar.
The whole thing takes like ten minutes to put together. Then you bake it at 400 for an hour. Garnish with raw onions and hot pickled peppers, like they do at Armando's. The hardest part is waiting for it to cool down enough that it doesn't burn your mouth.
The other hardest part is making those cutlets. So here we go:
Slice the eggplant or zucchini about a half-inch thick or less, keeping the thickness as consistent as possible. Place the slices in a big tray or bowl, sprinkling salt between the layers. The salt pulls out the water, shrinking the slices and making them more pliable and accepting of breading. Lay them in such a way that they will easily drain. Overnight in the fridge is best. Then, set up your typical three-stage breading assembly line.
In a big mixing bowl, mix flour with paprika, garlic powder, nutmeg, black pepper, thyme, and anything else you think will taste good. I lay off the salt, as the eggplant/zucchini have absorbed quite a bit. For a cup of flour, which will coat about two eggplants or similar sized zucchini, add a teaspoon or so of each spice and see how it tastes. Toss your slices in the seasoned flour until all coated.
The second bowl, which contains the egg wash, doesn't have to be as large. Beat an egg with a 1/4 cup of cream. I also add a large tablespoon of Vegenaise, for extra goodness. Beat until smooth. Using tongs, or a dedicated hand, submerge each piece in the egg wash, then hold it up for a moment while the excess drains off. Then drop it in bowl number three, which contains bread crumbs or panko flakes. Flip it around until fully coated, then lay on a cookie sheet.
When the sheet is filled with cutlets (but don't let any touch one another), bake at 400. After about ten minutes, or when you smell browned toast, flip the cutlets. The bottoms cook faster, so if you are waiting for the tops to brown, the bottoms will burn. When slightly brown on both sides, remove the tray from the oven and allow to cool.
Then put the cutlets in the fridge to cool further, so they won't release moisture when you transfer them to freezer bags. Then do just that. . If properly cooled before freezing, they won't stick together, so it's very convenient to take out as many as you wish in order to make your meal, and put the rest back in the freezer.
All winter long, you will have eggplant parmigiana at your disposal. For me, this dish has morphed from comfort food to healing food. For everyone else, it's good food. Quick food. Local food. And most importantly, delicious food.