Call it Parm for Short – Classic Melanzane Alla Parmegiano
Funny how they call it eggplant parm and not eggplant mozzarella. Maybe because there are versions without the mozzarella. I was going to say that the mozzarella is the star here. We love to buy fresh mozzarella at our local store Russos, and eat it while it is still warm from being freshly made. The salted mozzarellas are the best. But after considering it a bit, my conclusion is that each element in an Eggplant Parmesan shines, and it is the marriage of all of the ingredients baked together that make the dish.
My relationship with Italian food started in Hoboken,where I lived up until 5th grade. In those days, they would say that the square mile city, which smelled of coffee at least once a day due to the Maxwell Coffee factory located at one end of the city, had at least one bar on each block, and as I recall a pizza store almost as frequently. And then there was the Clam Broth House with spaghetti and clam sauce. My father would sometimes take me with him when he wanted a quick fix of fresh oysters on the half shells. At that time, women were not allowed at the bar area of the restaurant, but I was just a girl then, so it was alright. My father taught me how to fix each oyster up with a squeeze of lemon and a bit of cocktail sauce with horseradish, and tip it to the back of my throat and swallow it down. My dad always said that you weren’t supposed to chew an oyster, which to this day, I don’t quite understand. How can you really taste something if you can’t chew it? However, his philosophy did not apply to raw little neck clams, which my younger brother, Robert, remembers being our dad’s favorites, as well as pots of steamers. The broth of the steamers was to be sipped, while eating clam after clam, first rinsing each in the broth, then dipping it in salty melted butter. While standing at the bar eating clams and oysters, and of course drinking bear, customers at the Clam Broth House would throw the shells of the eaten bivalves, down on the floor as they ate. The floor was conveniently covered with sawdust, which made it easy for the workers to sweep up the shells. It is said that Marlon Brando ate at the Clam Broth House when they filmed him in the movie “On the Waterfront.” My family had it’s own story about Marlon Brando’s presence in Hoboken at that time. The story goes that that when I was a baby, my mom would put me in the stroller, and have my older brother David with us, probably holding on to the bar of the stroller or holding one of mom’s hands. Daily, while the film was being made, my mother would walk along the promenade with us in hand, in the park above where they were filming “On the Waterfront.” One day she finally did catch a glimpse of Brando, one of her movie idols until the day she died. He was to be forever known for his famous line, “I could have been a contender,” in that very film. When telling the story, my mom would always add that Brando had on a lot of make-up. Seeing him like that may have tarnished his image a bit, for her.
Hoboken was Frank Sinatra’s home town. My mom was a Bobby soxer, and with Sinatra it was love at first sight. In her later years my mom would religiously listen to Sinatra records spun by Jonathan Schwartz on his radio shows. At home, or if you were with her in the car driving somewhere, that is what you would hear. The Sinatra songs were her favorites. My cousin Susan said that her mother, Gert, my mom’s sister, was in the same class with Frank Sinatra in Hoboken high school. There is a Sinatra, Italian, Hoboken connection that cannot be denied.
In Hoboken, there was a building with a statue of an elk out front. Later in life, I learned that it was the Elk’s meeting lodge. At the time I did not know why on earth there was such a statue, and therefore I found the whole thing fascinating. An elk itself, was so foreign to city living, so why on earth would it be there? I think a lot of the city’s war veterans were members of the Elks. My friend Arlene’s father was a veteran, but was he was not an Elk. I remember Arlene showing me her father’s Purple Heart medal for fighting in World War II. Her dad, Harold, the same name as my own dad, still had shrapnel in his body from the war. Knowing that, always made me think of him with awe. I was under the impression that the Elks and veterans were in charge of running an Italian festival in the city of Hoboken. Washington Street, the city’s Main Street, would be set up with long tables with table cloths, and families and friends would feast together under strings of Italian flags. I remember big heavy set men and tall men wearing t-shirts that showed off their bulging arm muscles, cooking over huge vats of boiling spaghetti and pots of red sauce. Except for the pancakes my dad made on Sunday mornings, I had never seen a man cook before. I note the arm muscles only because my Uncle Harold Speiser, who owned a glass and mirror store at the center of Washington Street, would always , make a muscle for me and make his tattoo of a hula dancer dance before my eyes. In retrospect, the Italian spaghetti festival must have been a celebration of a religious holiday, like a Saint’s day, and more likely was associated with the Churches of the city. In my child’s eye it was magical, like a circus coming to town, setting up tents, and parading the elephants. I have no memory of having to surrender a ticket or pay for my meal. I just remember the sights and sounds, the milling people, the joy in a party-like celebration, eating spaghetti off a greasy paper plate while sitting at a long table with other people, the short sleeves and summer shorts, the heat of the summer day, and the freedom and wonder of being in it all.
My family followed my mother’s sister, Gert, and her family, and we moved to a suburb, Teaneck, N.J. My memories of Italian food and Teaneck have to do with the family ordering pizza. It was probably on a Friday night, as a treat, as many families did in those days. A lot of families nowadays, bond over pizza night at home, where they make their own pizzas. The big treat of ordering pizza in my Teaneck days was getting to go with my dad to pick up the pizza. They didn’t deliver to your house back then, and you had to drive to the pizza store and pick it up. The chosen store was as tiny as could be, a sliver of a store. You walked up to the counter, paid for your order, and left with your pizza. The thrill of it all was the ride home where I would get to sit next to my dad, holding the warm pizza boxes on my lap so they would stay stable on the ride back, and smelling the pizza smells wafting from the box. We were the heroes of the family, returning home with the pizzas.
As for my mom cooking Italian food, she relied on the old stand-by, meatballs and spaghetti. Unfortunately her meatballs had very little grace. They were big big meatballs, sort of like my Grandma Fannie’s cannonball matzoh balls, and they were a challenge to eat. I don’t really recall my mom cooking any eggplant parm. However, when we would go out to eat at an Italian restaurant, it would be something we would always order.
Back to the almost present, in 2011 in NYC, Rich Torrisi and Mario Carbone opened a paean to the Italian classic, by calling their new sandwich shop “Parm.” Parm is now owned by Major Food Group, and has cloned itself so that it is located in five spots within the big Apple. Just goes to show that you can never get enough Eggplant Parmesan.
The recipe I chose to use for making Eggplant Parmesan is taken from the Cookbook “Extra Virgin: Recipes and Love from Our Tuscan Kitchen,” by Gabriele Corcos and Debi Mazar. I had started watching their television show, “Extra Virgin,” on the Cooking Channel. I discovered them during one of those tv surfing, stumbling upon moments, and then I was hooked. I set up the DVR to record the series. Then my husband started watching with me and got hooked, because the show sometimes takes place in the authors’ farm located in the hills above Florence near the town of Fiesole in Italy. Dan and I had made two trips to Italy ourselves, and watching the show always brought back fond memories. Also, the food they cook on the show is enticing. We would wind up getting hungry at 11:00 pm at night, because the food they cooked on the tv show looked so good. Gabriele Corcos and Deb Mazar now have a restaurant in Windsor Terrace, which is within walking distance of our house in Brooklyn, called “The Tuscan Gun.” Given all of this, how could I not buy their cookbook?
As I wrote this draft about Eggplant Parmesan, we were having a huge snowstorm in New York. It started in the night and was still going in the early evening the next day. We had at least two feet of snow, if not more. A state of emergency had been declared, and the city was locked down. Anticipating all of this, on the Friday before the storm, I chose to cook Corcos’ and Mazar’s recipe for Eggplant Parmesan. I hope you will try this recipe and enjoy it, as we certainly had in the snowstorm’s aftermath. During the blizzard we both had eggplant for supper the Friday night The storm began, I had eggplant for breakfast on Saturday morning, and Dan had eggplant for lunch, when the storm was in full swing. We still a lot of leftovers for Sunday, when New York started digging itself out of the snow.
I surprised myself, as this recipe calls for starting out, by frying the eggplant slices. It has been years, probably decades, since I have fried eggplant. I usually try to make a healthier version of Eggplant Parmesan, and lightly oil the eggplant slices and bake them. But, we are talking classic parm, and so I fried away. I did the frying in my largest soup pot, which was perfect, because it kept the oil from splattering all over the stove, which would have been a more likely outcome, using frying pans. What I found interesting was that the recipe only calls for dredging the eggplant slices in flour mixed with salt and pepper before frying. Traditionally, they might be dredged in egg , and then breadcrumbs. The flour was sufficient to give the slices a nice bit of crust after frying. Additionally, the recipe calls for home made tomato sauce which adds so much flavor to the dish. I advise that you go the extra mile and make your own sauce. In describing this dish, Corcos and Mazar say that “…instead of the smothered-in-sauce-and-cheese version you regularly find in restaurants, ours boasts carefully balanced layers of tomato sauce, mozzarella, and eggplant, and it leaves out the ricotta.” This is something they have often stressed on their show, the idea of not smothering a dish in sauce, and I heartily agree with them on this point. And so dear reader, here is the recipe. As they say, “try it, you’ll like it.”
- Canola oil, for frying
- 1 cup all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon sea salt
- ¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 3 medium eggplants, cut into ¼-inch-thick slices
- 4 cups of Red Sauce
- ¾ pound part-skim mozzarella cheese, freshly shredded
- 1 cup freshly grated Parmigiana-Reggiano cheese, plus more for serving
- 1-1/2 cups fresh basil leaves, plus more for garnish
- Extra virgin olive oil for serving
- For the sauce:
- 1 (28-ounce can whole peeled tomatoes (pelati)
- 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- ⅓ red onion, medium diced
- 3 garlic cloves, cut into chunks
- Pinch of hot red pepper flakes (optional)
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 2 tablespoons torn fresh basil
- Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.
- In a large, heavy-bottomed pot or his-sided skillet, our in 2 inches of canola oil. Heat over high heat until a deep-fry thermometer reads 360 degrees F. (you can also test by adding a small piece of bread to the oil. If it fires and browns the oil is ready.)
- In a shallow dish, whisk together the flour, salt, and pepper. Working in batches of approximately 8 slices each, dredge the eggplant slices in the flour mixture and add them to the hot oil. Fry for 1 to 2 minutes each, until browned. Using tongs, transfer the eggplant to a baking sheet lined with paper towels to let cool.
- In two 13x9 inch baking dishes, place one layer of eggplant slices. Brush each with a thin layer of Red Sauce, top with a layer of mozzarella, 2 tablespoons Parmesan, and a sprinkle of basil leaves. Repeat the layering two more times. Make a final layer of Red Sauce, Mozzarella and Parmesan.
- Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, until bubbling and golden on top. Garnish with a final sprinkling of basil leaves and Parmesan, and a small drizzle of olive oil.
- For Sauce: In a food processor, or using an immersion blender, puree the tomatoes to a smooth creamy consistency. (If you like a more country feel, you can wait and break them up in the pan later with a wooden spoon).
- In a large saucepan, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat until hot. Add the onion and sauce 5 to 6 minutes, or until soft. Add the garlic and cook for 2 to 3 minutes, until you see the color start changing. If you'd like to make the sauce spicy, add the red pepper flakes.
- Add the tomatoes and season with salt and black pepper to taste. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer for about 30 minutes. (If you did not puree the tomatoes, use a wooden spoon to break them into pieces while they cook.) Strive for balance in the consistency of the sauce. It has to be fluid, but it should not look overly wet. Add the basil and remove from the heat.