A Parmigiana Without Tomatoes? It’s Not Just Possible, It’s Fantastic

But don't worry, there's plenty of cheese.

December 14, 2020
Photo by James RansomJames Ransom. Prop Stylist: Megan Hedgpeth. Food Stylist: Kate Buckens.

We've partnered with the Parmigiano Reggiano Consortium to share delicious ways to use this savory powerhouse in your cooking—and prove that it’s so much more than just a topping. Known for its unmistakable taste and perfectly crumbly texture, this cheese is made with only three ingredients, but the real magic comes after it's been aged for more than a year (in Italy, according to old-school methods).

Parmigiana is a true Italian classic, with quite possibly as many variations as there are cooks. While the most well-known version, parmigiana di melanzane, involves slices of eggplant (grilled or deep-fried, depending on which camp you're in) baked with tomato sauce and melting cheese, it’s a dish that lends itself well to adaptations—and has for centuries.

Take my fennel parmigiana: a comforting, wintry version where egg, milk, and cheese combine to make a custardy filling that replaces the tomato sauce. On top, there’s a crisp, golden crust of Parmigiano Reggiano and breadcrumbs so good that you'll want to bake it in your widest casserole dish, to maximize the crunchy surface area.

Many people think parmigiana is a dish that originated in Parma in northern Italy (when it’s actually from the south), so it has become almost a requirement for this dish to involve Parmigiano Reggiano, the region's best-loved cheese.

In fact, what really makes a parmigiana a parmigiana is the dish's layers—it takes its name from Sicilian window shutters, with the layers referencing the look of the overlapping wooden slats. But using Parmigiano Reggiano cheese is an excellent and delicious idea here. (And if you want to be certain yours is the real deal, make sure to check for Parmigiano Reggiano on the label—that certification process is taken very seriously in Europe.) Parmigiano Reggiano is ideal in baked dishes and it adds deep flavor to otherwise sweet, mild-tasting vegetables. It’s a must in both the filling and the crisp top in any parmigiana.

Fennel parmigiana can be as simple as layers of boiled and sliced fennel, baked simply with breadcrumbs and Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, made golden with olive oil. Or it can be made even richer with the addition of bechamel, making it not unlike a gratin. Personally, I absolutely can’t resist a parmigiana bianca (a “white,” aka tomato-less, version) made by pouring eggs beaten with a little milk and Parmigiano Reggiano cheese over the vegetables; that sauce then turns into creamy, custardy curds between the layers.

My fennel parmigiana makes a wonderful vegetarian main but can also be served as a side dish for the holidays. Either way, it’s a snap to make ahead (in really any part of the recipe), meaning your holiday meal-planning will be that much simpler.

What’s your favorite Italian dish? Tell us in the comments!

In partnership with the Parmigiano Reggiano Consortium, we’re sharing delicious ways to use this fridge staple in all types of cooking—not just as a topping for pasta. It's incredibly versatile in the kitchen, infusing broths and sauces with extra umami and making cheese boards even tastier. With Parmigiano Reggiano in your corner, ho-hum flavor is a thing of the past.

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The Australian-Japanese cookbook author has lived in Florence (where a visit to a cheese farm once inspired her to start a food blog) for over 10 years with her Tuscan sommelier husband and two kids. Her third cookbook, Tortellini at Midnight, is out now.