I realize it looks nothing like your nonna’s (tell us about hers in the comments, too!), but it's probably lighter-weight, a lot quicker to make, and you might even like it better. We won't tell her if you won't.
The various things that most eggplant parmesan recipes require you to do—the salting, pressing, breading, frying, then parm-ing—you don’t have to do here. And yet the eggplant is still concentrated and meltingly-soft—not tough or bitter or any of our other Worst Eggplant Fears; the tomato and cheese and breadcrumbs all do exactly what we're hoping they will.
Here's how: Batali has published at least three recipes of this ilk over the years, since his Molto Mario days. He’s gone off-script by grilling it, or larding the eggplant with thin slices of garlic, but there are three things that all his versions have in common. In my quest for The Ultimate Mario Batali Eggplant Parm Experience, I worked in my favorite elements of all of them—but these are the most important genius techniques, distilled:
1. The eggplant is roasted, not fried.
This gives you major weeknight points, but it also keeps the eggplant pure in flavor, not bogged down with oil and breading. The slices simply need to roast through for 30 minutes with a brush of olive oil and shakes of salt and pepper till they’re soft.
Other recipes would insist that you salt and drain the eggplant first to theoretically, debatably reduce bitterness, and prevent extra moisture from flooding the casserole. But this is rendered unnecessary if you remove the casserole entirely, which brings us to...
2. Instead of a gooey mass packed in a casserole, it’s stacked into neat towers.
When I first saw these stacks, I assumed they might have been the results of the 1990s tall food trend, with no other justification. But, in fact, stacking allows you to approach the proportions more loosely: You don’t need to worry about perfect ratios to prevent a soggy casserole or a dry one, because—once again—there is no casserole.
The whole thing is good because each layer is good, and luscious eggplant and bright marinara and gooey cheese-pulls of mozzarella inherently complement each other: In Batali’s version—unlike, perhaps, nonna’s—they don’t need to fuse completely. (He did downsize the 3-slice stacks from Molto Mario to 2-slice ones on The Chew, which was a good move, for structural reasons.)
3. The breadcrumbs aren’t hidden in breaded layers in the middle, but left crunchy on top.
Even if you don’t miss breading and frying the eggplant, you will probably miss its golden-toasty flavor. You can hold onto it (and add pops of crunchier texture, too), if you simply toast the breadcrumbs and sprinkle them on top. In Mario’s latest version as seen on The Chew, he gets fancy with thyme and chile flakes in the breadcrumbs and you can too, but I’m generally pretty happy with straight olive oil and salt.
Depending on your commitment level tonight, you can make Mario's tomato sauce in the recipe, or Marcella's, or your own, or buy a jar, for Pete's sake—you're already making Eggplant Parm. Nonna would be proud anyway.
For the eggplant parmesan stacks
- 2 large eggplant, about 1 pound each
- 1 splash extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 pinch salt and freshly-ground black pepper
- 3 cups basic tomato sauce, warm (recipe follows, or use your favorite)
- 12 leaves fresh basil (from 1 small bunch)
- 3/4 to 1 pound fresh mozzarella, sliced about 1/8-inch-thick
- 1/4 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
- 1/4 cup fresh bread crumbs
For the basic tomato sauce
- 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 Spanish onion, 1/4-inch dice
- 4 garlic cloves, peeled and thinly sliced
- 1 pinch salt, to taste
- 3 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme leaves, or 1 tablespoon dried
- 1/2 medium carrot, finely grated
- 2 (28-ounce) cans peeled whole tomatoes, crushed by hand and juices reserved
Photos by Emily Dryden
Got a genius recipe to share—from a classic cookbook, an online source, or anywhere, really? Please send it my way (and tell me what's so smart about it) at [email protected]. Thank you to Food52er TheBostonian for this one.