Eggplant is much like the little girl with a curl in the middle of her forehead. When it’s good, it’s very, very good. But when it’s bad, it’s horrid.
And by bad, we mean inedible. Ordering eggplant parmesan in a restaurant where you’ve never had it before is a total crapshoot. Even in a place where everything else is good, it could be so bad you can’t eat it. Even in a restaurant that has been consistently successful with it before, it could go very, very wrong on any given day. And eggplant rollatini is even trickier because fewer places offer it.
So why would anyone ever order either one?
Because when they’re good, they’re the best thing you’ll ever eat. And sometimes you have to take a great risk to earn a great reward.
But the best solution is just to cook your own eggplant and control every step of the process. You may make a few missteps at first, but the journey will be worth it. And there are ways of mitigating the risk.
After you’ve fried the first batch of eggplant slices, taste one. If it’s mushy and falling apart, you sliced it too thin. If it’s tough and bitter, you sliced it too thick. If it’s just plain bitter, your preliminary de-bitterizing efforts were not sufficient.
But if your sample bite is meaty and delicious, firm but a little spongy, and filled with the richness of hot olive oil and covered in crisp breading, you got it right. The rest is easy — time-consuming, but easy. The hardest part now is not to eat up all the eggplant as fast as you fry it. (Pro tip: When making eggplant rollatini, make the filling before you start frying. Then as you fry the end slices that are too small to roll, you can smear them with a little of the filling and munch away.)
Traditionally, eggplant is sliced and heavily salted, then allowed to sit for an hour or so while the nasty, bitter liquid inside makes its way to the surface, leached out by the salt. Then wipe or rinse off the salt and proceed from there. The following recipe for eggplant rollatini takes that tack.
Another method is to compress the eggplant. Heat it up while it’s weighted down with plates and then compress between paper towels. The following recipe for eggplant parm gives detailed instructions for this method.
Both processes rid the eggplant of moisture so that when you fry it, the slices are free to suck up the maximum amount of olive oil. And everyone knows fat is where the flavor lives. It doesn’t hurt that eggplant acts like a giant sponge anyway. And after it’s been compressed or dehydrated, it acts like a dry wrung-out sponge and sucks up even more. The good news is that olive oil is a ‘good for you’ fat and the more of it the eggplant sucks up, the better it tastes.
So why go to all this trouble for a vegetable that is so difficult to deal with? Because it’s worth it. And nothing else works as well.
One might suppose that eggplant parmesan is just a dish consisting of a fried summer vegetable that is layered in a casserole with tomato sauce and loads of cheese, so how can it not be good. With all that cheese and sauce, not to mention fried breading, surely the eggplant is just a delivery system for the breading and a focal point for the sauce and cheese.
It’s not. Try using squash instead of eggplant. Fried squash is also delicious and has no difficult quirks. But it also doesn’t have what it takes to hold up to a heavy, layered casserole. There’s just no ‘there’ there.
There’s a reason the other parms use meat, either chicken or veal. Only eggplant can hold the center the way meat does. Eggplant rollatini adds another layer of flavor with a creamy cheese (ricotta) in addition to Parmesan and mozzarella. The fried eggplant slices are rolled around a filling of ricotta, egg and herbs and then placed in a casserole dish, covered in sauce and cheese and baked. It’s like stuffed pasta except it’s fried. What could be better?
The Italian version of eggplant parmesan, as opposed to the Italian-American version being discussed here, is a whole other operation. Also delicious, but a completely different skill set. Italian immigrants in America traditionally bread their eggplant for eggplant parm whereas in Italy, it’s not usually breaded.
Some proponents of healthful eating will also suggest skipping the breading or perhaps baking the eggplant rather than frying, but those are changes that require skill to be successful. Use a recipe from a trusted source or be prepared for a lot of trial and error.
Or maybe do it the old fashioned way, and then just eat a smaller portion. There are worse things. It’s very rich, after all. And just to repeat, totally worth it.
3 cups whole-milk ricotta
2 medium eggplants
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/2 cup olive oil
all purpose flour
1 cup freshly grated Parmesancheese
3 tablespoons chopped fresh Italian parsley
8 oz fresh mozzarella cheese, cut into 1/4” sticks
8 fresh basil leaves
Preheat 375 F.
Trim the stems and ends from the eggplants. Remove strips of peel about 1” wide from the eggplants, leaving about 1/2 the peel intact. Cut the eggplant lengthwise into 1/4” slices and place them in a colander. Sprinkle generously with coarse salt, tossing to expose all slices, and let drain 1 hour. Rinse eggplant under cool running water, drain thoroughly and pat dry with paper towels.
Pour olive and vegetable oils into a medium skillet over med-high heat. While the oil is heating, whisk 2 of the eggs and 1 teaspoon coarse salt together in a wide, shallow bowl. Spread flour in an even layer in a separate wide, shallow bowl. Dredge eggplant slices in flour, shaking the excess off. Dip the floured eggplant into the egg mixture, turning well to coat both sides evenly.
Add as many of the coated eggplant slices as fit without touching and cook, turning once, until golden on both sides.
Stir the ricotta, 1/2 cup grated cheese, and parsley together in a mixing bowl. Taste and season with salt and pepper. Beat remaining egg in a separate bowl and stir into ricotta mixture. Pour 1 cup tomato sauce over the bottom of a 10 X 15 baking dish.
Lay one of the fried eggplant slices in front of you with the short end toward you. Spoon about 2 tablespoons ricotta filling over the narrow end of the slice and top it with a mozzarella stick and a basil leaf. Roll into a compact roll and place seam side down into the baking dish. Repeat with remaining eggplant slices, placing rolls side by side. Ladle remaining tomato sauce over eggplant rolls to coat them evenly. Sprinkle remaining cheese over top.
Cover dish loosely with aluminum foil and bake until the edges of the casserole are bubbling and filling is heated through, about 30 minutes. Let rest 10 minutes before serving.
Italian-American Eggplant Parmesan
This recipe includes ingredients and directions for homemade sauce. If you’ve already got sauce, you can skip that part.
2 1/2 pounds Italian eggplant (about 3 or 4 medium), sliced into 1/2-inch slices lengthwise
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 tbsp. butter
6 cloves garlic, grated on a micro-plane grater
4 tsp. dried oregano
1/2 tsp. red pepper flakes
2 (28-ounce) cans whole peeled tomatoes packed in juice
1 large onion, peeled and split in half
1/4 cup minced fresh parsley leaves
1/4 cup minced fresh basil
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
3 eggs, thoroughly beaten
6 ounces panko-style bread crumbs
4 ounces finely grated parmesan (about 2 cups)
1 1/2 cups vegetable oil
1 pound grated whole milk mozzarella (about 4 cups)
Season eggplant slices lightly on both sides with salt. Place double layer of paper towels or clean kitchen towel on large plate and lay single layer of eggplant slices on top. Top with 2 more layers paper towels or clean kitchen towel. Top with second large plate and place another layer of paper towels and eggplant on top. Top with third large plate. Microwave on high power until eggplant is easily compressed, about 3 minutes (be careful, plates will be hot).
Working one piece of eggplant at a time, press firmly between paper towels until compressed. Set aside on a large tray. Repeat microwaving and pressing steps until all eggplant slices are compressed.
Puree tomatoes and their juice in a food mill, blender, or food processor until no pieces larger than 1/16th of an inch remain. Heat olive oil and butter in a large saucepan over medium high heat until butter is melted. Add garlic, 2 teaspoons oregano, and pepper flakes and cook, stirring constantly until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Add tomatoes, onion, half of parsley, and half or basil, bring to a simmer, turn heat to low, and cook until reduced by half, about 1 hour. Stir in half of remaining parsley and basil and season to taste with salt. Remove the onion and discard. Set aside.
Place flour in one wide mixing bowl, eggs and 1 teaspoon salt in second wide mixing bowl, and breadcrumbs, remaining 2 teaspoons oregano, and 1/4 cup Parmesan in third bowl. Working with one slice at a time, dredge eggplant in flour, dip in egg, and coat in seasoned bread crumbs. Transfer breaded eggplant to rimmed baking sheet.
Preheat oven to 375°F and adjust oven rack to center position. Line clean rimmed baking sheet with double layer of paper towels. In a 12-inch non-stick or cast iron skillet, heat oil to 375°F. Carefully slide 3-4 eggplant slices into hot oil in single layer. Cook, shaking pan occasionally until first side is golden brown and crisp, about 2 1/2 minutes. Using tongs, carefully flip eggplant and continue cooking, stirring occasionally until second side is crisp, about 1 1/2 minutes longer. Transfer slices to paper-towel lined baking sheet and season immediately with salt. Repeat with remaining eggplant slices.
In a 9- by 13-inch glass baking dish, spread 1/4 of tomato sauce over bottom. Add 1/3 of eggplant slices in single layer (they may overlap a little bit). Press down to form even layer. Add 1/4 of tomato sauce and spread evenly. Evenly spread 1/3 of mozzarella and 1/3 of remaining parmesan over sauce. Repeat with two more layers each of eggplant, sauce, and cheese, reserving 1/4 cup of parmesan at the end.
Cover with foil and bake for 20 minutes. Remove foil and bake until light golden brown and bubbly on surface, about 20 minutes longer. Remove from oven and sprinkle remaining Parmesan over the top. Allow to rest for fifteen minutes, sprinkle with remaining parsley and basil, and serve.