‘Ooooh, they have parmigiana di melanzane on the menu’ said I, mouth watering, sounding somewhat surprised as if I hadn’t eaten my favorite comfort food for months. Yet, on our recent two-week trip to our cousin’s wedding in Sicily, I ordered my favorite dish at (almost) every restaurant we visited. To my delight, it was usually listed as an antipasto or first course, leaving plenty of room to indulge in other Sicilian delights from the menu.
Our Mom’s eggplant parmesan was the stuff of legend – creamy breaded, fried slices of eggplant layered with her delicious tomato sauce and oozy mozzarella cheese. Growing up, there was a phase when Joey and I hated eggplant. We would devise ways that we could escape when our Mom made this dish – which she did often. We would have a friend invite us to dinner. We would try hiding the eggplant between the bowl and the plate (that didn’t work out as planned). We unfortunately never had a dog. (Well, we did for 5 days – but that is a story for another day and a lot of therapy sessions.) Luckily our ‘eggplant-hating’ phase was short-lived. My love for our Mom’s Italian-American version grew through the years – a dish that often waited for me on my trips home from college; a dish that soothed my soul.
Today, this dish is one of my true comfort foods. Therefore, it was no surprise that I ordered parmigiana di melanzane as much as possible during our recent trip in September. We oohed and ahhed over every version – some were saucier than others; some only topped with Pecorino, no mozzarella in sight- but one thing remained constant – no breading; just a perfect mouthwatering balance between eggplant, sauce, and cheese.
We mused over why our Sicilian mother only made the Italian-American version – floured, dipped in egg, and breaded. She never made the Sicilian version. The reason was perhaps straightforward – her mother who emigrated to the US in the early 1900s didn’t like to cook. As a young widow raising 10 children during the Depression, she also had to work full-time as a seamstress in a blouse factory, leaving little time to cook. Our grandmother most likely never made this version so our mother must have learned only the classic Italian-American version. (According to Arthur Schwartz in his fantastic book, Naples at Table, this habit may have come from an old Amalfitano-Salernitano custom of layering eggplant that has been dipped in flour and egg and fried. )
Arthur also says that the first printed mention of parmigiana di melanzane was in 1765 in the first Neapolitan cookbook. The origin of its name is hotly debated (although most agree that it is not because it was named for the cheese nor originated in the Parma region of Italy.) Southern Italians claim ownership of this masterpiece and according to Italy Segreta, many believe that the dish was named after the Sicilian term, parmiciana, which refers to the ‘little wooden strips that form window shutters’ (also known as louvers) which the overlapping layers of eggplant resemble.
Back in the US, I wanted to recreate this lighter version at home and also to lighten it even further. I decided to try roasting the eggplant rather than frying. Bingo. For me, this is indeed heaven in a dish. Light. Creamy, Saucy, Cheesy. Oooh – it makes my heart sing 💛 I have now made this version at least a dozen times since I returned – and continue to tweak this dish to perfection. A few tips if you decide to make this recipe….
Salting the eggplant – a hotly, debated topic. Many cooks today skip this step (as I did for the first few times I made it.) Today’s eggplants tend to have much less bitterness so it is not really necessary to salt the eggplant for this reason. However, what I did find is that the salt not only removes excess water from the eggplants but as a result, they absorb less oil when they are cooked making for a better texture in the dish. So I highly recommend salting ….you can make the sauce while the eggplants are doing their thing.
Keep the sauce simple so as not to overpower but rather complement the eggplant. I use a very simple slightly sweet sauce made of canned whole tomatoes with a touch of garlic and oregano. And don’t be too heavy-handed with the salt in the sauce as the cheese will add salt to the dish as well.
The cheese – I like the saltiness from Pecorino Romano versus Parmigiano-Reggiano – but either works. As for the mozzarella, I have used freshly made mozzarella and it works great; however, I also love using higher-quality shredded mozzarella as I find it gives me better coverage over the eggplant.
Finally – balance. You are looking for a beautiful harmony between eggplant, sauce, and cheese. Go light on the amount of sauce (unless you really do prefer it saucy). Let the creamy eggplant shine through.
I hope this dish soothes your soul as much as it does mine. Break open a bottle of Sicilian red and enjoy 🍇. And do let us know if you give this recipe a try …
xx Michele ♥️Print
A lighter roasted eggplant parmesan – the perfect mouthwatering balance between eggplant, sauce, and cheese.
For the sauce:
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 4 garlic cloves
- 1 (28-ounce) can whole tomatoes
- ½ teaspoon dried oregano
- Kosher salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
For the eggplant:
- About 3 pounds medium eggplants, sliced crosswise into ½ inch slices
- Kosher salt
- Extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 cups shredded full-fat mozzarella
- Grated Pecorino Romano
- Freshly ground black pepper
- Handful fresh basil leaves, torn
1. Arrange as many slices of eggplant as will fit in a single layer on a large baking sheet. Sprinkle with about 1 teaspoon of kosher salt. Continue layering and salting the slices until all the eggplant is salted. (You can also do this with multiple baking sheets. I usually use 2 baking sheets to roast the eggplant in the oven, so I typically use both in this step as well. You may still have multiple layers on each sheet.) Set aside for 30 minutes.
2. Preheat the oven to 425° Fahrenheit.
3. While the eggplant is doing its thing, prepare the sauce. Using the side of a chef’s knife, smash the garlic and peel. In a medium saucepot, add the oil and garlic. Warm over medium-low heat until the garlic is fragrant, about 3 minutes. Pour in the canned tomatoes. Using the back of a wooden spoon, break up the tomatoes. Season with the oregano, ½ teaspoon salt, and a few grinds of black pepper. Bring to a gentle simmer. Cook, stirring frequently, for about 30 minutes until slightly thickened. Taste and adjust seasonings, if necessary. (Be careful to not make the sauce too salty as the cheese will add more salt to the finished dish.)
4. Transfer the eggplant slices to paper towels. Blot the slices to remove as much of the water as possible. Rinse and dry the baking sheets. Drizzle about 3 tablespoons of olive oil on each baking sheet. Arrange as many eggplant slices as possible in a single layer on each sheet. (You will need to do this in batches as there will be more slices than can fit on the 2 baking sheets.) Drizzle the slices with 2 more tablespoons of olive oil. Place the baking sheets in the oven and roast until the eggplant slices are browned underneath, about 15 minutes. Using a spatula, flip the eggplant slices and roast for an additional 10 minutes until browned underneath on the second side. (I rotate my trays from the bottom to the top rack when I flip them.) These times may vary depending on the thickness of your eggplant slices – so keep an eye on them after the first ten minutes of roasting. Remove from oven and transfer the roasted eggplant slices to a wire rack. Repeat the process until all the eggplant slices are roasted.
5. Reduce the oven temperature to 350°F.
6. In a 2 or 3-quart baking dish (see note below), ladle a small amount of sauce to cover the bottom of the dish. Cover the sauce with a single layer of eggplant. Ladle a little sauce over the slices, spreading it evenly across the eggplant. Sprinkle with some mozzarella, about 1 tablespoon of the grated Pecorino, and a few grinds of black pepper. Top with a few torn basil leaves. Repeat this process until you’ve used all the eggplant.
7. Top the last layer with about 1/3 cup tomato sauce, mozzarella, and grated Pecorino. Drizzle the top layer with extra virgin olive oil. (Reserve any remaining sauce for another use.)
8. Bake, uncovered, until hot and the sauce is bubbling, and the cheese is melted and browned in spots, about 30-40 minutes depending on the size of your baking dish. (Start keeping an eye on it around 30 minutes.)
9. If you’d like the top with a bit more color, run the dish under the broiler for a few minutes. (Be sure to watch closely!)
10. Remove and let rest for about 10 minutes. Serve and enjoy!
- Salting the eggplant: There is an age-old debate on whether or not to salt the eggplant. Today’s eggplant has less bitterness in the seeds however I find that salting the eggplant allows them to absorb less oil – so if you have the time, salt them. If you pressed for time, you can omit this step.
- Size of the baking dish: I like to use a deeper, smaller baking dish so it has more layers, approximately 8-by-10 inches. You can use a larger baking dish – you will simply have fewer layers.
- Prepare the sauce up to 2 days in advance. Allow to cool and store in the refrigerator.
- Prepare the entire dish one day in advance. Refrigerate. Bring to room temperature before baking.