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Speeding up Eggplant Parmigiana

On the last night of Hanukkah, I fried some more–but only a little this time.

When my daughter and I went vegetable shopping at my favorite corner grocery that day after school, we found a bin of eggplants on sale for 25 cents apiece. And they were pretty good, so I bought four of the firmest ones and we lugged them home.

The moment I spied the eggplants at the store, I was already thinking about eggplant parmigiana, or at least about involtini (cheese-filled eggplant rolls with tomato sauce), which comes to much the same thing. It’s mostly a geometrical difference at that point–rolled eggplant versus flat, crosswise rounds versus loopy lengthwise slices.

I’ve loved eggplant parmigiana since I was a kid and my parents would take us to a local Italian diner run by a friend of my mother’s. A different Italian diner, this one during my student days, served it either screamingly hot in a fresh-from-the-oven baking dish with so much incendiary mozzarella on top that you were guaranteed to scorch the roof of your mouth, or else sandwiched into a grinder roll with the best tomato sauce in the universe. I loved them both.

But there’s no denying the fact: the traditional parmigiana is one heavy kind of dinner. It’s designed to remind you (an hour or so after eating it, or perhaps again in the middle of the night) that suffering is all around us and wants us to share, so be humble and don’t forget the Tums.

Why is it so heavy? The eggplant, the tomato sauce, the garlic, even the cheese filling–all fine. I decided the main problems with eggplant parmigiana come down to two things: 1) frying the eggplant slices to cook them, because that takes a lot of time and a lot of oil, and 2) breading the eggplant with eggs and flour or breadcrumbs.

In the kibbutz kitchen where I worked after college, I did more than my share of slicing and breading eggplants and dipping them in eggs and redredging and frying, the whole works, enough for several hundred people (the other several hundred were smart enough not to eat them unless they happened to be hanging around the kitchen side room where the fryer was going and could snag a slice fresh off the cooling rack).

It’s more than ok to eat breaded eggplant hot off the press, as it were. Almost essential, in fact. But let the slices wait around at all, layer them with cheese and tomato sauce and bake for half an hour or so under foil, and what started out as fried eggplant, deliciously crunchy with a creamy texture inside, ends up shriveled and spongy or stringy between no-longer-crisp layers of bready gunk, and more than that, the frying oil is starting to make itself known again. For that to be anything less than leaden, the tomato sauce must be fantastic (which, ok, mine is, but it can’t save the eggplant).

So I’ve long since decided to skip the breading and even most of the frying when I make eggplant parmigiana, and I don’t miss that part at all. Either cooking or eating.

Instead of frying in lots of oil to cook the slices through, I microwave the sliced eggplant until it’s cooked through, about 8-9 minutes, then fry the slices just to brown in a scant tablespoon of olive oil with some garlic and curry powder (I know it doesn’t seem like it would go with Italian, but it just tastes good).

With the breading gone and the frying oil reduced to a spoonful or so, this gets closer to a dish that won’t cause legendary indigestion. Keep the cheeses light in fat–skim ricotta mashed with some crumbled feta has plenty of flavor but not so much fat, and shredded part-skim mozzarella can be sprinkled over the dish, not plastered to it. Have a terrific, garlicky tomato sauce on hand and use fresh herbs if you have them.

The last bit, the second cheat, is just microwaving the finished casserole covered for about 5 minutes instead of baking half an hour in a conventional oven. I estimate at least 40 minutes saved (also maybe half a cup of olive oil, a couple of eggs and some flour, along with the calories for them). But most of all, no spongy raw spots or shriveled slices of eggplant, and no gummy breading. And the leftovers make the best parmigiana grinder ever the  next day. And the day after that, if there’s any left.

Microwave Eggplant Parmigiana

  • 2 decent sized eggplants, scrubbed, stem ends cut off, sliced lengthwise about 1 cm thick, ~8-10 slices apiece
  • 1 clove garlic, mashed, minced or grated
  • 1/2 t curry powder, or Italian herbs like oregano and thyme
  • few tablespoons of olive oil for browning
  • tomato sauce
  • 1-1.5 c. skim or part skim ricotta (Precious, Sargento, etc.)
  • 1-2 oz. feta cheese
  • 2-3 oz low-fat mozzarella, shredded
  • small handful of shredded fresh basil leaves if you have them
  • optional: fennel seed and/or hot pepper flakes

1. Microwave the eggplant slices fanned out on a dinner plate on HIGH for 10 minutes. Then brown them (in batches as necessary) in a single layer with some garlic and spices (Italian if you like; I actually use a little curry powder) in a big nonstick frying pan with a spoonful or two of olive oil. Because they’re precooked they don’t need more than a spoonful or so of oil per batch to get to the browning stage. Shake them around a little on each side so they all get some of the flavoring and they don’t stick to the pan.

2. Mash the ricotta with the feta cheese. When the eggplant slices are browned, spoon a dollop of the cheese filling on the large end of each slice, and if you have the fresh basil, put a little onto the cheese before rolling up.

3. Spoon some tomato sauce in the bottom of a pyrex pie plate or microwaveable casserole and sprinkle a pinch or two of fennel seed and/or a few hot pepper flakes on if everyone likes them. Fit all the rolls into the dish on top of the sauce in a single layer, and sprinkle on some shredded mozzarella and a pinch of oregano.

4. Cover the pie plate or casserole with a lid or dinner plate and microwave on HIGH about 5 minutes. It should be heated through and the mozzarella should be melted. If not quite there, give it another minute.

Next-day grinders: Slice some Armenian “finger bread,” ciabatta or foccacia laterally (flat across, like a hamburger bun) and toast it. Meanwhile, microwave the leftover eggplant rolls in a covered dish for 1-2 minutes to heat up. Unroll and lay out a couple of the hot eggplant slices  onto one  half of the toasted bread, add some of the melted mozzarella and a bit of sauce, sandwich it, and eat carefully as soon as it’s just cool enough not to tear the roof of your mouth off. Messy but good.

One Response

  1. Eggplant Parmigiana is a classic recipe. You’ve remixed this recipe very well.

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