You may encounter plenty of delicious variations of Melanzane alla Parmigiana or eggplant parmigiana, but you will only find the most authentic Parmigiana in the teeming, narrow streets of Naples where you can smell the perfume of the sea and meet friendly, cheerful people. A few simple ingredients create a burst of Mediterranean flavors: tomatoes, eggplant, basil, and cheese.
A traditional southern recipe, from Naples, Campania, Calabria and Sicily, eggplant parmigiana has become one of the most iconic dishes in Italian culinary history.
I studied in Naples for a few years, so I went back and forth by plane every week. It took a real toll, but I looked forward to experiencing that charming Neapolitan atmosphere each week. Unfortunately, Naples has a bad reputation but is a wonderful city. It only takes about 5 minutes to fall in love with it, and if I could, I would go there more often. I now live in a place where everything is tidy, and everybody is silent and reserved. Naples is exactly the contrary: colorful, noisy, cheerful, chaotic, and more than friendly. It is pure energy. I really love Naples because I had a lot of great experiences and the food was delicious.
The first time I went to Naples, I ate an authentic parmigiana. It is still vivid in my mind. The parmigiana was so fragrant and juicy that it melted in my mouth. What a masterpiece! Since then I have tried to recreate it over and over again. The one I am going to write about is my best parmigiana. Let’s explore the secrets of this delicious dish.
First prepare the eggplant:
- Choose the right eggplant: some recipes call for the globe ones, also known as the American eggplant. I usually choose long purple Sicilian ones which are tastier and contain fewer seeds. 8-10 Italian eggplant, which are smaller than American eggplant, make 4-6 servings;
- Cut them properly. You must cut them lengthwise into ½ inch (1cm) slices. This is better done with a mandolin slicer as they will come out uniform. Don’t forget to cut them lengthwise. If you use globe ones, the slices will have too many seeds. So if those are your only option, pick smaller ones.
- I always use extra virgin olive oil to fry food because it has a higher smoke point and is more stable. Use a large pan and fry a few eggplant slices in enough oil until they turn golden brown on both sides. Eggplant soaks up too much oil if it isn’t fried properly, and the parmigiana will be difficult to digest.
- Some recipes coat the eggplant slices in breadcrumbs. First dip the slices in slightly beaten egg and then in crumbs. I don’t bread them since I prefer a lighter recipe. I just coat the eggplant slices in a little flour.
- When ready, drain the slices on paper towels
Use only two types of cheese:
- Use only fresh mozzarella cheese. In Italy, the best choice is 1 or 2-day-old mozzarella from Campania. When cooked, it gets deliciously stringy, but it doesn’t release much water. Cut about 28 oz (800g) of fresh mozzarella into 1cm cubes.
- Buy about 2 cups (200g) of Parmigiano cheese. Don’t buy grated Parmigiano; use a cheese grater.
Four essential tricks to make the perfect parmigiana
Parmigiana must not be too liquid, and all its flavors must be well balanced.
- First, you have to draw out the bitter juices of the eggplant; so before frying, you should prepare them as follows:
- Slice and place the slices in a strainer in a single layer, which you then put directly into the kitchen sink;
- Generously sprinkle the eggplant slices with salt. Do not worry; it is not too much salt. Salted eggplant can sit for a long time without harming the taste or texture.
- Allow the eggplant slices to sit for 30 minutes;
- Rinse off the salt in cold running water;
- Pat the slices dry with a paper towel. This is important when frying eggplant slices. If they are not dry, they will absorb too much oil and become indigestible.
- Choose only fresh mozzarella and strain it; otherwise, it will make the parmigiana too liquid. Slice and put it on a breadboard on an incline into your sink. Cover it with a tea towel and let it sit for about 30 minutes; occasionally pat the surface to draw the water out.
- Be careful with the texture of the tomato sauce; it must be thick so the parmigiana isn’t liquid. Simmer the tomato sauce until small ‘craters’ appear on the surface (for about 30 minutes). I make my sauce with 8 oz (250g) of homemade tomato sauce (you can also buy top quality sauce); 1 tablespoon of tomato paste; a half onion sautéed; salt; and fresh basil.
- Fry the eggplant slices properly; otherwise they will get soggy and oil-soaked. Fry a few slices at a time in a high-quality olive oil and drain them on paper towels. Slightly pat them to soak up the oil.
- Let the parmigiana sit a little before cutting but serve it warm. This dish reheats well if you have any leftovers.
Best Italian Eggplant Parmesan recipe: all you have to know to make the perfect “Parmigiana”
- 3 ½ lb of long purple eggplant (1500g)
- Basil leaves
- 28 oz of ripe tomatoes canned (preferably San Marzano) (794g)
- 1 small onion
- Soft wheat flour
- 28 oz of mozzarella fiordilatte cheese or 4.5 cups (500g) of scamorza or caciocavallo (800g about)
- 1 cups of Parmigiano Reggiano (200g)
- 1 l High quality extra virgin olive oil
- Salt and pepper
- Remove the stem and the leaves of the eggplant but don’t peel them. Cut them lengthwise into 1/4 inch (3-4) mm thick slices;
- Place them into a strainer in a single layer and put it onto a big plate or directly into the kitchen sink; generously sprinkle with coarse salt;
- Allow to sit for 30 minutes and then rinse off the salt in cold running water;
- Pat them dry with paper towel;
- Coat the eggplant slices with flour, and shake off the excess. Fry a few slices at a time in plenty of hot olive oil at 180°C (356°F) until golden crisp;
- Drain them on paper towels;
- Dice the fresh mozzarella and drain it to draw the water out;
- Prepare the tomato sauce: wash, peel and coarsely cut the tomatoes, discard the seeds. Sauté the tomatoes in a saucepan with a little extra virgin oil;
- Season with salt, pepper, fresh basil leaves and cook over medium heat without a lid for about one hour for a thick sauce;
- Now assemble the parmigiana; cover the bottom of a rectangular 9 x 13-inch (25x35 cm) baking dish with a thin layer of tomato sauce; then arrange a layer of fried eggplant slices; cover the eggplant slices with tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese, ground pepper, freshly grated Parmigiano cheese, and coarsely chopped basil leaves;
- Repeat this process twice with three layers of eggplant slices and two of sauce and cheese;
- Top the last layer with an abundant amount of grated Parmigiano cheese and basil leaves;
- Pre-heat the oven and bake at 350°F (177°C) for 30 minutes;
- Let it rest a little before cutting and serving: enjoy it slowly and patiently, bite after bite.
Be generous; serve abundant servings.
Don’t cut this into small portions. Parmigiana takes quite a lot of time to prepare, so be generous. Keep in mind that parmigiana is one of the most favorite dishes in every family. Moreover, in southern Italian families, servings are normally very generous.
How can I keep Parmigiana?
Parmigiana keeps well up to 1 or 2 days in the fridge covered with plastic wrap. You may freeze it after it is cooked. Cut it into single serving slices and defrost it in the fridge before heating it up.
The light variations …with grilled eggplant
If you are on a low-calorie diet or you prefer a lighter parmigiana, grill the eggplant on the barbecue grill instead of frying them. You may also replace fresh mozzarella with cow’s milk mozzarella. Since the caloric intake will decrease sharply, you will enjoy a very scrumptious dish without the guilt.