Friday, June 28, 2002

Parmigiana de Melanzane

Ahh, eggplant parmigiana.

A dish that many people view as nothing special, due largely to the fact that the majority of Italian restaurants prepare something far removed from the traditional dish my ancestors enjoyed and passed down generation to generation. I propose that if you like Italian food, yet view Eggplant Parmigiana as a greasy, heavy dish lacking subtlety of taste, that you've never really had it.

Most versions of the dish that you see in restaurants and cookbooks are like this version, and feature thick slices of eggplant, often with the skin on, coated in breadcrumbs, layered with gobs of cheese and swimming in sauce. The problem with this is that the thick slices often don't cook through, the breadcumbs soak up some of the oil, but detract from both texture and taste, and all the cheese and sauce are applied with a "lotsa cheese anda lotsa sause willa makea everything tasta real good" spirit, not really working together with the eggplant. The resulting dish is not bad, but that's all. Surprisingly, even Food TV's recipe from Gourmet Magazine makes it this way.

A few versions out there leave out breadcrumbs, which is good, you need to go further! For truly sublime eggplant, it requires thin slices, no skin, no breadcrumbs, no salting in advance, and a delicate layering of eggplant slices, sauce, and cheese - very delicate! Fortunately, an excellent recipe in the manner of the one my family has used for generations has been included in Nancy Verde Barr's "We Called it Macaroni", which, by the way, is a good Southern Italian/American cookbook.

Okay, enough theory. This is important because last night I prepared the largest quantity of the dish I have made in my life. A Natalizia family reunion is happening at my sister Ann's house in Massachusetts tomorrow, and my mother and I teamed up to make enough for 60 people. Fortunately, being an Italian-style event, there will be about 500 other food items present beyond the eggplant, but we're still talking a BIG quantity. My rant above about the right way to make it didn't mention just how long it takes to prepare the right way - it's quite a job. My mother is 71, and not as fond of spending hours over a very hot pan of oil on a 90-degree day as she once was, so she reluctantly at first, gladly later, let me do most of the cooking. By the time the third batch came around, it was 100% me, though her admonishment to keep the sauce light and watch the amount of flour on the slices were closely present as I worked alone for the last four hours of what was a seven hour eggplant-making session.

So, the reunion is hours away. There will be a ton of food, and the party would be fine even without any eggplant. But this is a big test for me. I've made eggplant before, completely solo, and have gotten nothing but raves. But the audiences have generally never tasted the good stuff before. This time, it's Aunts, Uncles, and family members in general who know the real thing well. I feel like I'm en route to the Champagne region of France with a case of homemade sparking wine. Is it really good? They'll know, and at least a few of them will be honest about it. I feel good about it, excited even, but we'll see.


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