I’ve mentioned before that my mother was not the greatest cook, but it’s important to note that she was also not the worst cook. And while she may have struggled with dry roasts and overcooked steaks, there is no question that a few of the dishes she made were hands down the greatest. I adored her fettuccini alfredo, her apple pies, her fresh Jersey tomato pasta sauce, her warm oatmeal chocolate chip cookies, her fish chowder, and especially her eggplant parm.
There are a few things that make my mom’s eggplant parm recipe special, but most notably is the way in which she cooked the eggplant. Traditionally, eggplant parm is made by breading thinly sliced pieces of eggplant and frying them up nice and crisp. But my mom, who was always trying to make things just a little bit healthier, developed a way to achieve beautifully crisp pieces of eggplant without any frying at all. Nope, she didn’t bake them. She broiled them.
In case you’re wondering, yes, there is a fundamental difference. Baking the eggplant, even at a very high temperature, does not result in a perfectly crispy exterior with perfectly tender interior. Especially not if you slice the eggplant as thin as it needs to be sliced, which is another key element of mom’s parm. Baking results in a soggy crust with overcooked insides, while broiling, as long as you keep a watchful eye, ensures that the eggplant is as crisp on the outside as if it were fried, while still being tender and creamy on the inside. This method uses far less oil, making it healthier, but with no loss in flavor, and also makes it less expensive and faster, to boot. It’s totally win-win. You guys, my mom was a damn genius.
The key to achieving that lovely crispy coating is to use an olive oil cooking spray. Olive oil for flavor, and spray for even distribution. Drizzling the oil is, of course, an option – and I have done it many times – but the results are never quite as good. There are plenty of olive oil sprays on the market these days, and you can even get one of those little pump-spray bottles that allow you to fill with your favorite olive oil instead of the who-knows-what that comes in the can. Spraying ensures each and every bit of breadcrumb is lightly coated in oil, which promotes even and thorough browning. Like I said, you can drizzle in a pinch, but results will vary.
Mozzarella is the standard cheese for any kind of parm, but mom always used the pre-grated Italian several-cheese-blend that comes in the little pouch. I used to use that, too, and full disclosure, it tastes the most like mom’s eggplant parm, because, well, that’s what she used. But modern-day Coley hates the pre-grated stuff due to the powdery coating of starch that they use to keep it from clumping together. I do find, however, that to achieve the best results, more than one cheese is needed. I use a mix of freshly grated mozz, mild provolone, and pecorino Romano for optimal gooeyness and flavor.
The sauce is also very important. Neither my mom nor any other self-respecting Italian would ever use a jarred sauce. It’s sacrilegious. Making homemade tomato sauce from scratch sounds daunting, but it really is a fairly simple and straightforward process that doesn’t take more than 5 pantry ingredients (canned tomatoes, tomato paste, garlic, onion, bay leaf), and all of 10 minutes work, plus maybe an additional 20 minutes cook time that only requires the occasional stir. You can see my recipe (with video!) here. I will advocate for homemade tomato sauce until I die – mom would have wanted it that way – but I get that life is busy, and this eggplant parm recipe is already involved, so you do what’s best for you.
The rest is pretty traditional. Start with a layer of sauce, then eggplant, then cheese, then repeat, being sure to leave enough cheese at the end to thoroughly cover the entire casserole. The last layer – for the record – will go eggplant-sauce-cheese, rather than eggplant-cheese-sauce, so that the top can get all gooey and melty. It gets baked, covered, and then finished for the last 10 minutes or so uncovered so it can get just a little bit browned on top. Then, it must rest. I know, it will be hard, so it’s best to plan ahead. Not allowing any time to rest before cutting will result in a big gloppy mess. Don’t risk it. You’ve come this far!
What I love most about this dish is that, yes, of course, it tastes amazing the day you make it, but it’s one of those rare recipes that tastes even better the next day. The leftovers are actually more delicious than when it’s fresh, which is counterintuitive but true, making it an excellent choice for a make-ahead-meal. The eggplant has a chance to set and the flavors meld and somehow something happens in the refrigerator that causes both the texture and the flavor to improve. Maybe it’s science. But I think magic sounds way cooler.
This dish makes me miss my mamma and her home cooking, even the stuff that wasn’t all that great, because even if it wasn’t prepared with the most culinary knowledge, it was always prepared with love, and nothing tastes better than that. Even though this dish makes me miss her, it also makes me proud of her, makes me feel connected to her, and makes me feel like I’m doing my part to keep her legacy alive.
She was the best, man, and this eggplant parm is proof. <3
One Year Ago: Butternut Squash, Bacon, Kale + Goat Cheese Frittata
And: Venice, Italy
- 4 cups Italian seasoned breadcrumbs, or more as needed
- 3 eggs
- 1 very large or two medium eggplants
- olive oil cooking spray
- 5 cups homemade tomato sauce (see recipe)
- 16 ounces whole milk mozzarella, grated (not fresh mozzarella)
- 8 ounces mild provolone, grated
- 1 cup finely grated pecorino Romano
- minced fresh parsley, for garnish (optional)
- Pour the breadcrumbs into a shallow bowl, then in another bowl, whisk together the eggs until thoroughly combined.
- Peel the eggplant and slice very thinly, about 1/8-1/4 inch thick. Take one slice of eggplant at a time and dip it into the egg until coated on both sides. Let the excess drip off, then transfer to the breadcrumbs and press to coat on both sides. Lay the breaded eggplant on a sheet pan and repeat with the remaining slices, being sure to keep the eggplant in a single layer on the baking sheets (you will need 2-3 baking sheets, or just set the remaining pieces of breaded eggplant aside and reuse the first baking sheet).
- Preheat a broiler to high and set the oven rack as close to the top as it will go. Spray the top of the eggplant generously with olive oil spray, being sure to evenly coat each piece. Place under the broiler for 2-3 minutes, but keep an eye on it, as broilers all heat differently and can go from browned to burnt in an instant.
- When the eggplant turns golden brown and crisp, remove from the oven and use a pair of tongs to turn each piece of eggplant over to the other side. Spray with another thorough coat of olive oil spray, then place back under the broiler and watch until browned on the other side. Set the eggplant aside to cool and repeat with all the remaining pieces.
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and set aside 1 1/2 cups each of mozzarella and provolone. Pour just enough sauce to coat the bottom of a 9x13 inch casserole dish. Place a single, even layer of eggplant over the sauce, then top with a sprinkling of each cheese. Repeat with more sauce, another layer of eggplant, more cheese, etc. until you've used up all the eggplant, sauce and cheese. For the last layer, add the sauce first, and then finish with the remaining 3 cups of cheese that you set aside.
- Cover with foil and bake for 40 minutes, then remove the foil and bake for an additional 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool for at least 30 minutes. Sprinkle with chopped parsley if desired, and serve. Leftovers can be stored in the refrigerator for up to 5 days and actually taste better than the first day.