Parmigiana di Melanzane. A truly classic Italian dish that seems to have originated in Naples in the early 1800’s. This version is authentic but not typical. After all, this one is gluten-free. And still totally delicious. That’s not to say it must be gluten-free …a quick switch of flour will give you the freedom to choose. Either way you’ll have a winner.
What I am sharing with you here is loosely adapted from a recipe found in The Silver Spoon. This cookbook, which is more like an encyclopedia, is often referred to as “Italy’s culinary bible.” It is quite hefty in weight, has some photos (but not too many) and is packed full of old-country formulas, techniques & secrets.
Use the freshest and most flavorful eggplant you can find. It’s totally up to you but in my household, we usually prefer to peel our eggplant so that there’s no chance of battling with chewy or tough skin later on. And as you can see here, the peeled eggplant is then thinly sliced lengthwise.
This is where we must address the age old question …is it necessary to pre-salt your eggplant before cooking? There are limitless opinions on this one. The theory is that if you treat the sliced eggplant with salt before cooking, any possible bitterness is eliminated (or diminished) and the eggplant will absorb less oil when frying. Unless I am cooking smaller Italian or Asian eggplants, I always salt before cooking. Once again, there are many methods. (Who knew cooking eggplant could be so complicated?) I place the slices in a single layer on a baking sheet lined with paper towels. Generously salt both sides of each slice; then cover with another layer of paper towels. Let the salted eggplant sit for at least 1/2 hour or up to 1 1/2 hours. When you’re ready to cook, rinse the eggplant under cold water to remove the excess salt. Then press the eggplant between clean kitchen towels or paper towels to extract as much liquid as possible. Once this is done, your eggplant slices are ready to go.
Now that we’re ready for the assembly line, arrange two shallow dishes next to your frying pan. As you can see, each slice will be dredged in the flour (shown here is Bob’s Red Mill Gluten-Free 1-to-1 All Purpose Flour) then dipped in the beaten egg until well coated. No bread crumbs required.
The Italian-American version is usually breaded before frying, but the traditional Italian version is not. As a result, it is lighter and you can really taste the rich eggplant flavor — it’s not masked by heavy breading. If you are a true fan of eggplant, then you may prefer this recipe. If you want to make it even lighter, you could grill or bake the eggplant slices instead of frying them.
Once the eggplant is fried, let the fun begin. I like to use a particular baking dish for this recipe so that I can build my creation with at least four layers. This one is about 8-inches square and has fairly high sides.
To top things off, a light layer of marinara is dotted with pats of butter adding flavor and moistness to the entire dish.
Give it about 10 to 15 minutes of rest after removing your baking dish from the oven. For a nice presentation, add some fresh chopped parsley and/or basil before serving.
While eggplant parmesan is usually served over pasta (often spaghetti) in the U.S., that’s not the tradition in Italy. There’s a wonderful restaurant called Otto Strada in Hoboken, NJ that is on our list of favorites. Their Melanzane Alla Parmigiana “Il Mattone”, which is finished off in their wood-burning brick oven, is served on its own as a hefty “tower” of the most delicious eggplant parm I’ve ever tasted. Always my number one choice. It’s a bit on the rich side since they add their homemade ricotta to the mix but really …so good. My husband usually orders a serving of their homemade tagliatelle and we have the perfect pairing to share. Add a side of their smoky-flavored broccoli rabe and I’m in heaven.
The point to all of this is that I find myself continuously trying to duplicate their amazing eggplant parm. Of course, since I don’t have a wood-burning brick oven in my kitchen it will never happen. But, you can’t blame a girl for trying. This is my best attempt thus far. My “a bit less-rich, baked in a regular oven” version of their amazing eggplant parm. And to be able to offer it to my gluten-free loved ones …well, call me a happy camper.
gluten-free (or-not) authentic eggplant parmesan
Very loosely adapted from a recipe found in The Silver Spoon
Inspired by a dish served at Otto Strata, Melanzane Alla Parmigiana "Il Mattone"
- 3 to 4 eggplants, peeled & cut lengthwise into 1/4-inch thick slices (about 3 1/2 to 4 pounds)
- salt & freshly ground black pepper, for seasoning
- 1 1/2 cups gluten-free all-purpose flour (or regular all-purpose flour)
- 4 large eggs, lightly beaten
- 3/4 cup olive oil (plus more if needed)
- 2 cups marinara sauce (may not use all of it)
- 16 ounces fresh mozzarella, thinly sliced (may not use all of it)
- 1/2 cup Parmigiano Reggiano, freshly grated
- 1/4 cup fresh basil leaves, chopped
- 2 tablespoons butter
- fresh chopped parsley, for garnish (optional)
- fresh chopped basil, for garnish (optional)
Place the eggplant slices in a single layer on a baking sheet lined with paper towels. Generously salt both sides of each slice; then cover with another layer of paper towels. Let the salted eggplant sit for at least 1/2 hour or up to 1 1/2 hours. When you’re ready to cook, rinse the eggplant under cold water to remove the excess salt. Then press the eggplant between clean kitchen towels or paper towels to extract as much liquid as possible.
Pour the olive oil into a wide and deep saucepan, preferably something that will fit about 3 to 4 eggplant slices at a time. Heat over burner set at medium-high. Test to see if the oil is hot enough by carefully dropping in a cube of eggplant—it should sizzle immediately. Fry 3 to 4 slices at a time, giving a few minutes on each side until they are evenly golden brown. Drain on paper towels and let cool. Season to taste with salt and freshly ground black pepper, if necessary.
Preheat oven to 350° F.
Begin assembly by first spooning some marinara sauce in a thin layer over the bottom of a ceramic or glass baking dish, ideally a high-sided 8-inch square. Place a layer of slightly overlapping eggplant slices, followed by a sparse coating of sliced mozzarella & a generous sprinkling of grated Parmigiano Reggiano, followed by approximately a 1/3-cup of marinara sauce along with some fresh basil pieces. Proceed with two more coated layers of eggplant slices. Finish up with one last layer of eggplant topped off with a slightly more generous layer of marinara sauce. Dot the top with evenly placed bits of butter.
Bake in preheated oven for 30 to 35 minutes, or until bubbly and a golden brown crust has formed on the edges. Remove from the oven and let it rest for about 15 to 20 minutes before cutting into it. If desired, garnish with a sprinkling of fresh chopped parsley and/or basil. Also delicious served tepid rather than piping hot.
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