Eggplant is one of those vegetables that I didn't eat growing up nor did my husband so I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times that I've actually bought fresh eggplant. Fried eggplant marinara or eggplant parmigiana are dishes I have ordered when dining out but I've had both good and bad experiences, therefore eggplant has never become a favorite. That has forever changed with this delicious recipe!
In September, I was the very lucky winner of a cookbook called Mamma Agata, Simple and Genuine from At Home with Vicki Bensinger (whose blog I subscribe to and the source of the maple roasted carrots and parsnips in my last post). Vicki teaches culinary classes and had learned about Mamma Agata's cooking school in Italy when she traveled there a few years ago. A relationship was struck over the internet between Vicki and Mamma Agata's English-speaking daughter, Chiara, who also works in the cooking school. She graciously offered Vicki a copy of cookbook for one of Vicki's readers. Thank you, Vicki and thank you, Chiara and Mamma Agata!
Mamma Agata has cooked for many celebrities over the years, including Jacqueline Kennedy, Frank Sinatra, Anita Eckberg, Pierce Brosnan and many others.. Now she has her own culinary school on the Amalfi Coast in the town of Ravello overlooking the sea. It would be a dream come true to visit Mamma Agata's cooking school!
The cookbook was shipped from Italy and was signed especially for me. I am thrilled with it! The pages are filled with gorgeous photos of her home and gardens, family, the surrounding beautiful area and many interesting stories about her life.
and also a special video of the actor Sam Page (who grew up in Milwaukee) taking a cooking class with Mamma Agata and Chiara a few years ago:
Parmigiana di Melanzane (Eggplant Parmigiana) from Mamma Agata’s ‘Simple and Genuine’ Cook Book
The recipe may seem daunting at first but just take it one step at a time. It is well worth the effort!
I only used half the amount of Peanut oil to fry the eggplant slices. I used a large cast iron skillet. The smoked cheese (I used gouda) imparts a wonderful, earthy flavor to this dish - do not eliminate. Since I could not find Japanese eggplants, I used baby eggplants. I did not make Mamma's fresh tomato sauce below as it is no longer fresh tomato season here. I used a good-quality bottled marinara sauce. There is a product called Wondra which I used for coating the eggplants. It is a very fine flour, hopefully similar to the 00 Italian flour which I could not find. I used regular mozzarella as I didn't read the recipe carefully enough when I made my shopping list! If you do use mozzarella in water you have to plan another day ahead to remove the moisture as stated in the recipe.
8 eggplants (long, thin and firm, such as Japanese eggplants)
1/2 lb Mozzarella cheese
1 1/2 cups Parmigiano/Parmesan cheese (grated)
1/2 lb smoked Provolone cheese (or any similar smoked cheese such as Gouda)
1 3/4 oz 00 farina flour (or white pastry flour) to coat the eggplant
20 basil leaves
1 quart peanut or vegetable oil for frying (NOTE: Do not use olive oil)
1 cup of Mamma Agata’s Tomato Sauce (recipe below), or any tomato sauce you like
Mamma Agata’s Secrets:
The type of eggplant that Mamma Agata uses is very important in this recipe. The eggplant needs to be long, thin and firm; Japanese eggplants work well. Ultimately, the shape, firmness and (low) water content is critical to the success of a good Eggplant Parmigiana. Less water in the eggplant means more flavor in your dish and not soggy eggplant Parmigiana!
Buy fresh mozzarella cheese (in water). Two days before making your eggplant Parmigiana, remove the cheese from the water and place in a covered bowl in the refrigerator to dry out. Otherwise, all of the water contained in the mozzarella will leak into your eggplant and you will have a soggy eggplant Parmigiana.
Preparation of the eggplant:
Wash the eggplant and remove the top and end of each eggplant. Use a vegetable peeler to peel the skin of the eggplant lengthwise (i.e. along the length of the eggplant) in stripes, like a zebra, keeping some of the skin on the eggplant to preserve the essential vitamins and flavor of the eggplant.
Once the eggplant is peeled, slice it lengthwise into long pieces about 1/2 inch thick. Do not slice too thin, as it will reduce in size during cooking.
Layer the eggplant slices around the edge of a colander/strainer; sprinkle each slice of eggplant with a pinch of sea salt. Allow the salted eggplant to sit for thirty minutes, to assist in draining out excess water and removing the bitter taste from the eggplant.
After thirty minutes, gently squeeze out excess water from the eggplant slices, 3-4 slices of eggplant at a time, starting from the top of the slices to the bottom. Do not rinse off the salt, as eggplants are like sponges and will absorb the water.
Place the flour on a plate. Dip each slice of eggplant into the flour to cover on both sides. Work quickly, as you do not want the eggplant to absorb too much flour or they will become too soggy to fry.
Frying the eggplant:
Using a deep frying pan, pour in at least a quart of oil, leaving one inch from the top. Do not overfill the frying pan with ingredients. The oil should be very hot, at least 374 degrees Fahrenheit.
Test to see if the oil is hot enough by placing a small potion of the ingredients in the oil. They should float to the top and start to bubble. Seed oils are the best for frying because they have a high burning point. Peanut and vegetable oils are great.
Fry the eggplant slices until they are golden brown. Remove them from the oil and place them onto a paper towel to absorb any excess oil.
Preparing the eggplant Parmigiana:
Pre-heat the oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit. Gather the ingredients, including the tomato sauce, mozzarella and provolone cheeses, grated Parmigiano cheese, and slices of eggplant.
Now, begin to layer your eggplant Parmigiana in a baking dish as follows:
Tomato sauce (use SPARINGLY – too much will make it soggy)
Eggplant, almost two layers in one
Smoked provolone or Gouda cheese
Fresh basil leaves
Repeat this process twice, creating three layers in total. The top layer may be higher than the baking dish when it is ready for the oven.
NOTE: The third layer is the top layer and should only include Mamma Agata’s Tomato Sauce and Parmigiano cheese, without mozzarella and provolone cheese. Also, place a cookie sheet or aluminum foil on the rack below your baking dish, as this dish tends to leak out or spill over when baking.
Bake the eggplant Parmigiana in the pre-heated oven for about one hour. After one hour, turn off the heat in the oven, leaving the dish in there for an additional ten minutes with the oven door slightly open. Then, remove the Eggplant from the oven and let it sit at room temperature for at least 40 minutes before serving.
Mamma Agata’s Tomato Sauce
1 quart of vine-ripened Roma tomatoes (pureed)
10 fresh cherry tomatoes
5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 cloves fresh garlic
3 fresh basil leaves
Add the olive oil, garlic and basil to a large saucepan. NOTE: Do this at the same time and do NOT heat the oil first.
Heat the ingredients over a high flame to release the natural oils contained in the fresh garlic, enhancing the flavors of the tomato sauce. Be careful not to allowe the garlic to burn or smoke. The garlic and oil should be on high flame for one to two minutes.
When the temperature of the oil begins to rise, add the tomato puree and fresh vine-ripened cherry tomatoes to the pan.
Cook the sauce, first over a high flame just until the sauce begins to boil. Then, lower the flame to simmer the sauce for a total of thirty minutes (including the time it took to bring it to a boil.)