There’s nothing quite like a big tray of steaming Eggplant Parmesan on a cold winter’s night: gooey, stringy mozzarella and parmesan with crispy browned pockets; soft, substantive, eggplant; bright, garlicky tomato sauce. The whole truly is greater than the sum of its parts.
Then again, it is of crucial importance that each individual element in the dish is of highest quality. This is a mantra I take from Californian cuisine, where fresh ingredients are prepared in the simplest of ways, so that their natural flavors shine through. Eggplant Parmesan, of course, is not the simplest, with the eggplant first fried and the tomato sauce prepared before being layered with cheese and baked. Nevertheless, I feel strongly that it benefits from using the best ingredients.
Pick eggplants that are heavy for their size. Use real Parmigiano-Reggiano. Get the best tomatoes, or, if tomatoes are not in season, use high-quality whole canned tomatoes rather than diced ones. I was lucky enough to recently travel to Italy, where I picked up several kilos of 3-year aged Parmigiano-Reggiano. You know it’s the good stuff when it has little white flecks. Not mold, these are in fact amino acid clusters, which provide crunch and are a sign of a well-aged cheese.
I also picked up fresh eggplants and basil from the shuk, or market. In Tel Aviv alone, a fairly small city, there are three shuks, selling all manner of produce, spices, halva, kanafah, bourekas, and, at the largest, kitchen supplies, beach blankets, and touristy tchotchkes — including these hipster Ben Gurion coasters.
(If you visit Israel, you absolutely must stock up on spices at a shuk.)
Israel has some of the best olive oil in the world, and although mine comes from the supermarket, it is certified by the Israeli olive oil board.
So, why is this absolutely the Best Eggplant Parmesan?
For one, it omits breadcrumbs. I find breadcrumbs — as in the traditional American-style Eggplant Parmesan — detract from the marriage of the three main flavors. This recipe is for a more Italian-style (although I by no means claim to be authentic) Eggplant Parmesan. Incidentally, two regions of southern Italy, Campania and Sicily, claim the dish as their own; in Italian, it is Melanzane alla Parmigiana.
Second, it fries, rather than bakes the eggplant. I saved you all the step and tested eggplant both ways. Baked is good if you’re watching your fat intake. For flavor, fried is 100% the way to go.
Third, the eggplant is pre-soaked in salt water. While conventional wisdom says to pre-salt your eggplant to draw out bitterness, in recent years many chefs and recipe developers have said this step is unnecessary. But my test revealed it is, in fact, necessary for the best texture and taste. I tested fried eggplant three ways — no pre-soak, 30-minute pre-soak, and 75-minute pre-soak. The 75-minute ones were the best, the 30-minute ones decent, and the ones without a pre-soak mediocre. We’re not making the quickest Eggplant Parmesan here, we’re making the Best Eggplant Parmesan. So pre-soak your eggplant! If you’re short on time, you can cut the pre-soak time down, but I recommend a minimum of 45 minutes. Do it while you’re making the sauce.
Without further ado, here’s the recipe:
Best Eggplant Parmesan
dairy | serves 4-6
3 medium-to-large eggplants, sliced into 1/2-inch thick circles
1 cup kosher salt
Peanut oil, or other neutral oil with a high smoking point (for frying)
2 tbsp olive oil
25 g unsalted butter (about 2 tbsp)
1 onion, chopped
6 cloves garlic, minced
2 tsp dried oregano
2 28-oz cans whole tomatoes
Salt and pepper, to taste
350 g low-moisture mozzarella (about 3/4 pounds, or 12 oz), torn by hand into small pieces, about 3-by-1 cm (1-by-1/2 in)
1/2 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
Torn fresh basil leaves, from about 5 sprigs
Fill two large bowls with cold water. Add 1/2 cup salt to each bowl and mix until dissolved. Add half of eggplant slices to each bowl. Leave for 75 minutes, stirring eggplants around occasionally. (You can do 45 minutes if short on time.)
Make tomato sauce
Add 1 tbsp olive oil and all the butter to a large non-stick skillet over medium-low heat. When butter is melted, add onions. Cook until onions are soft, about 5-6 minutes, stirring often. Clear a space in the center of skillet and add remaining 1 tbsp olive oil. Allow to heat for 30 seconds, then add minced garlic and oregano. Cook in oil until fragrant, 1-2 minutes. Then stir garlic and oregano into cooked onions. Add tomatoes to skillet, breaking them up with your hands into small pieces. Add leftover juice from one of the cans. Turn heat to low and simmer for 30 minutes.
Fry the Eggplants
Pre-heat oven to 190 degrees C (375 F).
When the 75 minutes are up, drain the eggplants, rinse with cold water, then drain again. Dry with paper towels.
Set up a frying station: cast-iron skillet, bottle of oil (you will go through a lot!), large plate or platter with layer of paper towel over it, paper towel role nearby. Add oil into skillet until about 1-inch deep. Turn heat to medium-high.
When oil is shimmering, add eggplant slices. Fry until golden brown on bottom side, about 5 minutes, then flip and fry until golden brown on other side, about 3 minutes. Check eggplant frequently to ensure they are not burning, turning heat down slightly if they seem to be burning easily. When an eggplant slice is finished, remove it to the paper-towel-covered platter, then blot with another piece of paper towel. Add more oil if the level gets too low (it probably will). Continue until you have fried all the eggplant slices.
Place a layer of eggplant slices on the bottom of a 30-by-25 cm baking dish (12-by-10 inch), or one of similar size. Top with thin layer of tomato sauce, then about 1/4 of the torn mozzarella. Add some of the basil leaves on top. Then arrange another layer of eggplant on top, continuing the process until you run out of ingredients, finishing with a thin layer of tomato sauce and mozzarella (no basil on the top layer). On top of this final layer of mozzarella, sprinkle the Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Bake until bubbling and cheese on top is browned, 20-30 minutes. Scatter fresh basil leaves on top. Let rest 10 minutes, then serve.