If a man cannot or will not cook, he is not a man. All REAL men – manly men, if you will – know how to cook, and by cook I don’t mean scurry around a studio kitchen yelling “BAM!” and cooking stuff most ordinary chefs don’t cook, like that wretched little Emeril does on his stupid Food Network show. Honestly…what kind of serious chef has his own studio band, complete with an African-American Doc Severinsen? I learned to cook because my mother – God rest her soul – was a superb cook. When I moved out and lived on my own, I had no choice but to teach myself the arcane ways of the kitchen.
A common example of Southern Italian (Calabria, mostly) and Sicilian comfort food is a dish that, thanks largely to generations of Italian immigrants, has become a staple of American cuisine: Eggplant Parmigiana. Note the difference in spelling from the title of this piece: the dish is entirely of Southern Italian/Sicilian origin and has almost nothing to do with Parma, a region much farther north on the Italian peninsula. “Parmigiana” is a variation of “parmiciana:”
With its liberal use of aubergines and tomatoes, this is most likely an ancient Sicilian dish which, in many cookbooks is erroneously described as deriving its name from Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, one of the ingredients. However “parmigiana” is the Italianization of the Sicilian dialectal word “parmiciana”, which refers to the slats of wood which compose the central part of a shutter and overlap in the same manner as the slices of aubergine in the dish.”
The Italian word for eggplant, melenzane, is part of its botanical classification (Solanum melongena) and is pronounced meh-lehn-TZAHN-ay. However, like so much of the continental Italian language that time and distance have garbled and corrupted, the pronunciation in the United States has changed: just as “caifone” (meaning “oafish buffoon” and pronounced guy-PHONE-ay) is mispronounced as ga-VONE and “Va a f’an culo” (a vulgar phrase meaning roughly “Stick it up your ass” and pronounced va-ah-FAHN-COOLOH) is mispronounced as BAH-FON-gool, it happens that melenzane is mispronounced as moo-lin-yon. Sound familiar? It should: “moolinyon” (sometimes shortened to “moolie”) is a vulgar Italian-American slang word referring to a black person, most often employed by Italian-American caifones.
But enough of history and etymology: it’s time to make Eggplant Parmiciana, using a recipe I got from my late mother. She stuck with the traditional Sicilian practice of using flour instead of breadcrumbs to coat the eggplant slices. It made for a much lighter dish where the flavor of the eggplant really comes through.
4 big eggplants
3 eggs, beaten
2 cups all purpose flour
Extra light olive oil for frying
8 cups of Mama Marie’s tomato sauce
4 cups shredded mozzarella cheese, divided into 4 portions
4 cups grated Parmigiano cheese, divided into 4 portions
2 cups equal parts of mozzarella and Parmigiano cheese for topping
½ cup shredded fresh basil leaves, divided into 4 portions
Salt and ground pepper for seasoning
Red pepper flakes (optional)
Place a cooling rack over a large cookie sheet and cover the rack with a layer of paper towels. Cut off top and bottom from each eggplant and then peel off the purple skin. Slice each eggplant lengthwise to a thickness of no more than 1/4 inch. Sprinkle salt on each side and then place in a layer on the paper towel (do not overlap the slices). Cover with a piece of paper towel and repeat until all of the eggplant slices have been salted and stacked. Place a paper towel on the final layer, then place a cookie sheet on top and a small stack of dishes or some other weight on the cookie sheet. Let rest for 1 hour to allow the salt to draw excess moisture and bitterness from the eggplant.
Wash all the slices in cold running water and arrange them on a large towel. Cover with another towel and let dry for 15 minutes. In the meantime, beat the eggs and place the flour in a large, shallow dish. Dip each slice of eggplant in the beaten egg and then dredge in the flour. Set aside on a large platter.
In a large skillet (12″ or bigger) on medium heat add extra light olive oil to a depth of ½ inch. When oil reaches a temperature of about 300 degrees F., begin cooking the floured eggplant slices, about 5 minutes per side. Let drain on the cooling rack, with paper towels between layers to absorb excess oil.
Slather 1 cup of Mama Marie’s tomato sauce on the bottom of a large, 3 inch deep lasagna pan. Layer the bottom with the eggplant slices, being sure to overlap them so that all the sauce is covered. Using the back of a gravy ladle, slather a thin layer of sauce over the eggplant. Sprinkle with one portion each of mozzarella and Parmigiano cheeses, followed by a few grinds of black pepper and a few flakes of red pepper. Scatter a portion of the basil leaves on top. Repeat for next three layers, then top with a final layer of eggplant slices. Slather a thin layer of tomato sauce on top and then coat evenly with the mozzarella/Parmigiano mixture.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Place the pan, uncovered, on the middle rack and bake for 45 minutes or until the cheese crust is lightly browned and bubbling. Remove from oven and let sit for 15 minutes to allow the melted cheese between the layers to congeal a bit. Cut into squares and serve on a plate with a light spring salad. Chianti makes a nice accompaniment for this dish.