April 18, 2014

Delicious Dish: Versatile Parmigiana di Melanzane

Just about this time of year I start dreaming about Italy.  Well, truth be told, I’m always dreaming about Italy, but now, as spring creeps forward on tippy toe feet and the pale green shoots are breaking ground in my barren garden, I imagine a more fertile, far-away landscape. 
Places linger, but people make every moment in Italy come alive, and nowhere does this happen than through the glorious food of Italy, and nowhere is it more delightful than when you get to eat - or better yet make - that food alongside a passionate Italian.  

Lunch at Fattoria di Montechiari winery in Tuscany 

I was reliving one of those moments when I pulled out a recipe for parmigiana di melanzane recently.  Let’s be clear.  I don’t mean eggplant parmesan, that greasy, gooey and way too cheesy stuff slathered with tomato sauce that’s a shade too red for comfort.  No, this is the real deal, made with care in a few simple steps with truly excellent ingredients.  The best thing about parmigiana di melanzane is its versatility: an elegant starter for a dinner party; part of brunch spread, or even as a lovely side for grilled meats.

The wizard behind this brilliantly simple and delicious recipe is Paola Zocchi, co-owner with her husband Stefano of the magical La Palazzetta del Vescovo in Umbria.   If you are venturing to the green heart of Italy, as Umbria is known, seek out this secluded gem of an inn within viewing distance of Todi.  

Breakfast al fresco at La Palazzetta del Vescovo

While there is plenty to do and see in the area, one of my favourite memories was the afternoon we spent in Paola’s immaculate kitchen, learning to cook Italian classics.  Paola's recipe for parmigiana di melanzane has become a go-to staple.  The perfect make ahead dish, and freezable to boot, these mini melanzane treats are a great addition any meal, all year long.

 Paola in her element in the kitchen, making pasta and preparing gelatin for panna cotta

Paola’s Parmigiana di Melanzane
makes 8-10 individual ramekins

3 medium eggplants
Kosher salt
3 large mozzarella balls, preferably bufalo di mozzarella, chopped into ½ cubes
1½ c finely grated parmigiano reggiano cheese; more as needed
Tomato sauce, either homemade (see recipe below), or any good quality unseasoned commercial tomato sauce, about 2 cups  
Breadcrumbs (optional)

8-10 1 c ramekins; aluminum cups work fine here too! 
1. Preheat oven to 350˚F/180˚C.

2.  Line two large cookie sheets with paper towels.  Peel the eggplant, cut into ½ inch slices, and lay out the slices, slightly overlapping to make them fit.  Sprinkle liberally with kosher salt and let sit for 30 minutes.  

3.  Rinse the eggplant to remove the salt and dry the slices well by laying them out on fresh paper or tea towels.  Using a griddle pan, stovetop grill or barbecue, lightly grill the eggplant slices until golden.  Set aside.

4.  To assemble: spray the ramekins with nonstick spray and sprinkle with breadcrumbs.  In each ramekin, place one slice eggplant, followed by a tablespoon or two of tomato sauce, a few cubes of mozzarella, and a tablespoon or two of parmigiana.  Repeat until each ramekin is nearly full. Finish with a slice of eggplant, tomato sauce and final sprinkle of parmigiana.

 5.  Place ramekins on a baking sheet and bake for 30 minutes, or until the cheese is melted, golden brown and bubbling.

6.  Cool slightly and serve warm or at room temperature.  If freezing, cool completely before freezing.

Paola's Homemade Tomato Sauce 
makes about 3 cups

1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 small garlic clove, whole, peeled
1 whole, dried peperoncino or red pepper flakes (see note below)*
1 700 ml bottle Italian passata**
Two pinches salt, or to taste 
½ tsp sugar 
1.  Put the oil, garlic and peperoncino in a medium saucepan over medium heat, and heat until the garlic and peperoncino are fragrant.  Remove garlic and pepperoncino.

2.  Add passata and about 1¼ cups water.  Add two pinches of salt (or to taste) and 1 tsp of sugar.  Simmer for one hour. Can be made ahead and refrigerated or frozen.

*Peperoncino: You know the shaker jars of red pepper flakes at your local Italian restaurant?  That is the more common version of peperoncino that is readily available in the spice section of your bulk food or grocery store.  Do try to find the whole small peperoncini (about the size of your baby finger); they will impart a bit of barely perceptible zing without overpowering your sauce.  If you are using the flakes, tie a small quantity in a bit of cheescloth so you can remove them easily.

**Italian passata: There's a link above that explains what passata is: basically a very pure version of uncooked tomato puree.  If you can't find this at your grocery store or you don't have an Italian grocer nearby, use whole peeled canned tomatoes, pureed and strained to remove seeds and skin, enough to measure approx 3 cups.