Mostly Mediterranean Eggplant Parmigiana
Serves 4 with a salad
Lighten up, eggplant parmigiana! This version of an old warhorse of Italiano cuisine tips a hand (leaf?) to its Sicilian origins and pan Mediterranean influences, forgoing the heavy breadcrumb crust seen in the American versions and opting instead for bare slices cooked with olive oil; in this instance I roast the naked eggplant strips instead of frying, making it an lighter, juicier, gluten-free dish with fewer steps in the preparation.
Food historians like to debate over the use of “parma” in the name of this dish, suggesting that it probably does not refer to the well-known cheese or the Italian city, but instead derived from an old Persian word used for wooden shutters…perhaps because the strips of eggplant layered in a casserole look just like layered wooden planks? Who knows, but wherever it’s from I prefer the simplicity and don’t miss slapping crumbs onto the eggplant that turn to mush after baking in the sauce. But why stop at the Persian name when the sauce can be further enhanced with Middle Eastern spices (some Persian spice blend baharat and fruity hot Aleppo red pepper), and sealed with an “almost” Bechamel sauce from the Greek Pastichio casserole (page XX) which bakes up into a golden, creamy, fluffy topping. If you have a little bit of extra Chickpea Parmasiano (from making the farro soup on page XX), sprinkle it on top before baking for additional zest.
If possible, allow this casserole to cool for at least 20 minutes before slicing. The flavors further develop from a generous cooling, and the once boiling hot sauce won’t burn your dainty mouth. Serve with a green salad and fresh crusty peasant style bread.
As with any eggplant dish, salting the slices beforehand is great way to tame older, bitter, seedy supermarket eggplant. If your eggplant is plucked right from the garden or farmer’s market, skip the salting step and proceed directly to roasting.
Time save tip: Shortcut this dish even further by using a 25 ounce jar of your favorite prepared all natural tomato basil pasta sauce. Whisk in the Persian 7 Spice and the Allepo pepper into the unheated sauce before layering in the casserole.
3 pounds purple globe eggplant
Olive oil cooking spray or olive oil for brushing
1 tablespoon olive oil
4 cloves garlic, peeled
Two 14 ounce cans plain tomato sauce
2 teaspoons dried oregano or dried mixed Italian herb seasoning
2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil leaves or 1 teaspoon dried basil
¾ teaspoon Persian 7 Spice blend (baharat) or ¼ teaspoon each ground cinnamon, coriander, and cumin
1 teaspoon Aleppo red pepper or red pepper flakes
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1 recipe Silken Almost-Bechamel topping topping from Pastichio “vegani”, Greek layered pasta casserole
1/2 cup Chickpea Parmasiano, optional
1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees and line 2 large baking sheets with parchment paper. Wash eggplants, remove flower end, and slice lengthwise into 1/4 inch thick strips. Layer in a large metal colander, occasionally sprinkling the slices with a pinch of salt. Top with a dinner plate, place in a sink or bowl and place a heavy weight (a few cans or a bag of rice) and set the eggplant aside for 20 minutes to soften. When the oven is ready, transfer the eggplant to the baking sheet and arrange in a single layer. Spray or brush both sides with a light coating of olive oil. Roast eggplant for 12 to 14 minutes on each side, or until the flesh is tender and beginning to brown. Use a spatula to flip each piece over once. Transfer eggplant to a plate and repeat with any remaining eggplant.
2. While the eggplant is roasting, prepare the sauce: in a 2 quart saucepan, preheat olive oil over medium heat then stir in garlic and fry for 30 seconds. Stir in remaining ingredients and simmer sauce for 15 minutes, then turn off heat and set aside. In a blender or food processor pulse together the ingredients for the béchamel sauce until either smooth or slightly chunky and set aside.
3. To assemble the casserole, spoon 1/4 cup of sauce on the bottom of a 9 x 14 x 3 inch or slightly smaller ceramic baking dish. Layer half of the eggplant (overlapping slices as needed), then top with remaining sauce. If you’re using the Chickpea Parmasiano, sprinkle half of that over the sauce. Layer on the remaining eggplant and spread remaining sauce on top. Spread over the sauce the Silken Almost Bechamel to the edges of the pan; it’s okay if some of the sauce swirls into the creamy topping. If desired sprinkle with remaining Chickpea Parmasiano or a generous pinch of more dried oregano or basil. Bake for 45 minutes; the creamy topping should be rich golden brown and the sauce rapidly bubbling up from underneath. Set the boiling hot casserole aside for at least 20 minutes or longer to cool. Use a sharp, serrated knife to slice and a wide bent spatula to scoop up and serve.