Would it surprise you to learn that this Italian classic does not traditionally call for Parmesan cheese? The name melanzana alla parmigiana means simply eggplant ‘made in the Parma way’—which is to layer a dish with vegetables and/or other ingredients. Its lineage is equally shifty, as there’s nothing truly definitive to suggest the dish originates in the Parma area. In fact, many say melanzana alla parmigiana is a Sicilian recipe, sometimes pointing to the word parmiciana, the Sicilian word for the strips of wood that comprise window shutters and whose appearances recalls the layers of a parmigiana dish. Technically then, the correct name of the dish is not eggplant parmigiana, but rather a parmigiana of eggplant, much as one could make (and say) a parmigiana of veal or a parmigiana of zucchini.
The wonders don’t end here. I learned something pretty amazing today while consulting a handful of cookbooks: the true, traditional parmigiana of eggplant calls for sliced boiled egg. The first time I read this I admit I scoffed a bit. I looked elsewhere, on the web and in my own cookbook collection, including my La Cucina Italiana encyclopedia and Il Grande Mosaico della Cucina Italiana, and found it repeatedly mentioned. You won’t find boiled egg in many of your mainstream recipes on the web, but it is out there. Don’t believe me? Well, I don’t blame you. But do check it out. Today I made it, the real-deal parmigiana di melanzane.
2 medium eggplants
250 grams (1 cup) of chunky tomato sauce (5 to 8 tomatoes)
250 grams (about 9-10 ounces) of fresh mozzarella
3 boiled eggs
5 or 6 fresh whole basil leaves, plus 1 Tbls minced
Slice the eggplant into ¼ inch thick rounds or strips. If you’re using a round baking dish, cut the eggplant into rounds. If using a square or rectangular dish, slice them lengthwise into oblong strips. This will help when it comes time to arrange the slices in your dish.
Layer the slices on a large platter, sprinkling with a small amount of table salt as you proceed. Place another heavy platter on top of the eggplant and let them ‘bleed’ for 15-20 minutes. (If your eggplant is uber, plucked-from-your-veggie-patch fresh you can skip this step.)
Boil the eggs for 7 minutes and let them cool in their water. Heat the oven to 180° C (355° F). Now make the tomato sauce. Score and boil the tomatoes for 5 minutes. When cooled, peel and deseed the tomatoes and place the pulp in bowl. Add about 1 tablespoon of minced basil and 1 teaspoon of salt and stir well. Leave aside.
Now the eggplant. First drain the slices of any brownish water. Flour both sides of the slices. Heat 5 tablespoons of olive oil in a large pan and fry the eggplant until golden on both sides. You will have to work in batches. Place the fried slices on paper towels and salt lightly.
Peel and slice the eggs (about 4 slices from each egg). Slice the mozzarella into rounds. Cover the bottom of your baking dish with a light drizzle of olive oil and start layering: eggplant, eggs and mozzarella, tomato sauce. Finish the top layer with cheese only. Bake for 30 minutes circa, or until the top is bubbly and golden. Garnish with a few basil leaves. You can add a sprinkle of grated Parmesan if you really want to. But it won’t mean anything.