America's Test Kitchen: Eggplant Parmesan

[scroll down to view recipe and video]

I was never a big fan of eggplant, but I was an ignorant fool in my days as a youth. It wasn't until I saw Bobby Flay issue an eggplant parmesan throwdown on Throwdown with Bobby Flay on the Food Network that I even heard of eggplant parmesan. Even though eggplant was an ingredient I normally stayed away from, the eggplant parmesan sure did look good on tv.

Homemade Eggplant Parmeasan
Homemade Eggplant Parmesan
I tried eggplant parmesan for the first time at the chain restaurant Buca di Beppo. If you've ever been to Buca di Beppo, then you'd know that it's an Italian restaurant where they have the menu on the walls with numerous black and white framed photos covering every inch of wall space and guests must walk through the kitchen to get to the dining area. They of course serve Italian food - most of which are your standard, run of the mill pasta dishes and pizzas. They're by all means decent food at a very decent price especially if you're a big party. Their pizzas are ok if you're into super thin cracker-like flat bread type pizzas (but are very salty) and most of their pastas are just ordinary noodles topped with ordinary sauce - nothing spectacular. Like I said, the dishes are decent, but do not necessarily standout as world-class dishes that Gordon Ramsay would be proud of. In my expert opinion, though, they do have 2 dishes that rise above all the rest. They include the chicken marsala because the chicken (which is white meat) is just so tender and juicy and the other is their eggplant parmesan. I've never tried any other eggplant parmesan (but I hear Lidia Bastianich from Lidia's Italy makes a good eggplant parmigiana and so does Giada De Laurentiis from Everyday Italian who makes a mini eggplant parmesan), so I have no other samples for comparison, but I absolutely loved it at Buca. If you ever go to Buca, you must order the eggplant parm.

Eggplant Parmesan before going in the oven
Eggplant Parmesan right before going in the oven.

I watched America's Test Kitchen video below (season 5, episode 17: In an Italian-American Kitchen) where they made eggplant parmesan and thought that it looked like a pretty good recipe for eggplant parm. What I liked about their version of this classic Italian dish is that the eggplant slices are not fried in oil. Yes, I know anything fried does indeed make it taste better, but I do have to think about my health and my family's health along the way as well. The eggplant slices are normally coated with flour, dredged in egg, covered with bread crumbs and then fried. Instead, this recipe bakes the already coated slices in the oven and, surprisingly enough, the slices came out crispy as if they were fried (if you don't know how to pick out an eggplant, just look for the ones that are firm and shiny). Also, I like how you can make your own breadcrumbs by pulsing slices of white bread in a food processor. It definitely is a lot better than store-bought breadcrumbs that have a similar dry consistency as that of sawdust and has a tendency to have a stale flavor. On the other hand, I understand that cooking does take time, so if you prefer to use store bought bread crumbs to save you a little bit of time, then by all means. If you do use store bought bread crumbs, I suggest using the bread crumbs flavored with Italian seasoning (Progresso has Italian style bread crumbs) since this is an Italian dish and it's actually not that bad. Lastly, I liked how the eggplant slices were not drenched in tomato sauce which would normally make the eggplant slices soggy and drowning in liquid. Roughly a spoon full of sauce across each baked eggplant slice prevented them from losing their crunch. That being said, the crunch from the eggplant gave a nice contrast from the soft, gooey texture coming from the layer of melted mozzarella cheese.

Layers of our eggplant parm
Various layers of our eggplant parm: gooey cheese, cripsy eggplant slices, homemade tomato sauce topped with fresh basil

One mistake I made was that I made some of the eggplant slices too thin. I originally thought that thick slices would not crisp up in oven the way they would if they were fried. As I mentioned, the baked slices of eggplant (even the thicker ones) still were mighty crunchy. Not only that, but having thin slices increased my workload when prepping the meal. Thinner slices meant more slices to coat in flour, egg, and breadcrumbs. I made some slices too thin that it yielded an excess of slices causing me to use an additional egg for the egg wash than the recipe called for. So make sure to make your slices thick to save you time from having to cut and coat them and from having to use more eggs. Be forewarned though that the process of coating and dredging the eggplant slices in flour/egg/breadcrumbs can be quite messy and this is my least favorite part in making eggplant parmesan.

Eggplant parm fresh out of the oven
Fresh out of the oven!

This recipe was an absolute success. I can't wait to make it again. What surprised me, though, about this recipe was how hearty it was. When I think of vegetarian dishes, I think of tofu and salad. Dishes that just don't necessarily make you full the way a meaty steak or a burger would. Surprising enough, this eggplant parmesan is deceivingly quite filling for a vegetarian dish. Perhaps, it's because of all that mozzarella and parmesan cheese used, but in any case, it won't leave you feeling hungry after a decent portion of it. I paired this recipe with some homemade focaccia bread which proved to be a perfect side dish making our Sunday evening like a pleasant summer night out in Tuscany.

Eggplant Parmesan
America's Test Kitchen - season 5 episode 17, In Italian-American Kitchen
serves 6 to 8

2 pounds globe eggplant (2 medium eggplants), sliced crosswise into 1/4-inch-thick rounds [do not slice too thin]
1 tbsp kosher salt
8 slices high-quality white bread (about 8 ounces), torn into quarters
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese (about 2 ounces) [be sure to use the small holes in your cheese grater for this]
Table salt and ground black pepper
1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
4 large eggs [I needed 5 eggs]
6 tablespoons vegetable oil

Tomato Sauce
3 cans (14 1/2 ounces each) diced tomatoes
2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
4 medium cloves garlic , minced or pressed through garlic press (about 1 generous tablespoon)
1/4 tsp red pepper flakes
1/2 cup fresh basil leaves chopped
Table salt and ground black pepper

8 ounces whole milk mozzarella or part-skim mozzarella, shredded (2 cups)
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese (about 1 ounce)
10 fresh basil leaves torn, for garnish

1. FOR THE EGGPLANT: Toss half of eggplant slices and 1 1/2 tsp kosher salt in large bowl until combined; transfer salted eggplant to large colander set over bowl. Repeat with remaining eggplant and kosher salt, placing second batch in colander on top of first. Let stand until eggplant releases about 2 tablespoons liquid, 30 to 45 minutes. Arrange eggplant slices on triple layer paper towels; cover with another triple layer paper towels. Firmly press each slice to remove as much liquid as possible, then wipe off excess salt.

2. While eggplant is draining, adjust oven racks to upper- and lower-middle positions, place rimmed baking sheet on each rack, and heat oven to 425 degrees. Pulse bread in food processor to fine, even crumbs, about fifteen 1-second pulses (you should have about 4 cups). Transfer crumbs to pie plate and stir in 1 cup Parmesan, 1/4 teaspoon salt, and 1/2 tsp pepper; set aside. Wipe out bowl (do not wash) and set aside.

3. Combine flour and 1 teaspoon pepper in large zipper-lock bag; shake to combine. Beat eggs in second pie plate. Place 8 to 10 eggplant slices in bag with flour; seal bag and shake to coat eggplant. Remove eggplant slices, shaking off excess flour, dip in eggs, let excess egg run off, then coat evenly with bread crumb mixture; set breaded slices on wire rack set over baking sheet. Repeat with remaining eggplant.

4. Remove preheated baking sheets from oven; add 3 tbsp oil to each sheet, tilting to coat evenly with oil. Place half of breaded eggplant on each sheet in single layer; bake until eggplant is well browned and crisp, about 30 minutes, switching and rotating baking sheets after 10 minutes, and flipping eggplant slices with wide spatula after 20 min. Do not turn off oven.

5. FOR THE SAUCE: While eggplant bakes, process 2 cans diced tomatoes in food processor until almost smooth, about 5 seconds. Heat olive oil, garlic, and red pepper flakes in large heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, until fragrant and garlic is light golden, about 3 minutes; stir in processed and remaining can of diced tomatoes. Bring sauce to boil, then reduce heat to medium-low and simmer, stirring occasionally, until slightly thickened and reduced, about 15 min (you should have about 4 cups). Stir in basil and season to taste with salt and pepper.

6. TO ASSEMBLE: Spread 1 cup tomato sauce in bottom of 13 by 9-inch baking dish. Layer in half of eggplant slices, overlapping slices to fit; distribute 1 cup sauce over eggplant; sprinkle with half of mozzarella. Layer in remaining eggplant and dot with 1 cup sauce, leaving majority of eggplant exposed so it will remain crisp; sprinkle with 1/4 cup Parmesan and remaining mozzarella. Bake until bubbling and cheese is browned, 13 to 15 min. Cool 10 minutes; scatter basil over top, and serve, passing remaining tomato sauce separately.


Video: Making Eggplant Parmesan on America's Test Kitchen

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