big Chef Bill Fuller, November 2019
I can’t say that I’ve ever been a fan of the classic Italian-American dish that is Eggplant Parmesan. Traditionally, slices of eggplant are breaded in varying ways, sometimes with a traditional breading of flour, egg and breadcrumbs, sometimes just dipped in egg then breadcrumbs. They are then often pan-fried (although I have had versions where they are baked instead—an atrocity). At this point, one has nice, crispy, fried breaded eggplant discs. This seems like a fairly delicious thing, second maybe to nice, crispy, fried breaded chicken.
Then, here is what happens. The traditional recipe asks one to layer these awesome crispy fried eggplant treats (assuming you aren’t one of the confused people that baked theirs) INTO A CASSEROLE DISH WITH SAUCE and further directs you to BAKE THAT MESS! The resulting dish is reminiscent of eggplant-flavored slugs with sauce and soggy dough between them that is topped with melted cheese. I did not grow up with Eggplant Parmesan, but after having been served this dish enthusiastically and often in my early twenties, I decided I hated it. I have never ordered it, cooked it, or served it.
But people like eggplant. And people want to eat more vegetables. And it must be possible to make the dish so that it isn’t mushy or slimy. During the research period for Alta Via, we encountered a lot of eggplant, prepared in numerous ways. It seems to be a Vegetable of the Moment, competing with Brussels sprouts and cauliflower.
So, we thought about it. Part of the goal with baking it is to have melty cheese on top. Doing this, of course, ruins the crispy of the breading. But what if you put warm, soft cheese on top? That could replace the melted cheese, and not force the crispy awesomeness of the dish to be destroyed by the cheese melting down onto it…
What if we never baked it? When you serve chicken parmesan, you don’t chuck it into a casserole. You throw it on a plate with some pasta and sauce. Then, it is amazing.
Finally, there is the issue of the skin. First off, eggplant isn’t chicken skin. It doesn’t crisp up when you fry it and it isn’t ever likely to be a delicacy on its own. Also, the breading falls off the skin. You are left with a patty crispy on both sides with a shiny, oily black band around the outside. So peel that eggplant! Don’t be lazy!
So we salted our eggplant slices (about 3/8” thick) and patted them dry. Then breaded them and fried them. Meanwhile, we set some burrata out to warm up and heated up the red sauce. Once the slices were fried and golden-lovely, we layered them with a little sauce and parmesan. Finally, we placed the burrata on top and slit it open allowing the cheese to run down the pile of crispy eggplant deliciousness.
Viola! Better eggplant parm.
Often it works well to think about a classic recipe or preparation, understanding what is good about it, and what is only okay. Of course, our new style eggplant parmesan can’t travel. You must make and serve it right away to take advantage of the juxtaposition of the crispy crust and gooey cheese, and in this way, it fails if you need to bring a nice vegetarian casserole to a dinner party. But it’s much better in the make-and-serve-immediately environment. If you take the time to consider dishes you’ve made before and follow your intuition on improving them, you can usually come up with something even better. That’s when cooking really becomes fun!
Recipe: Alta Via Eggplant Parmesan