March 8, 2012

Eggplant Parmesan

The phone rang on Saturday morning. It was my mom, calling from India, where she and my dad were visiting. They’d recently attended a family wedding. Now, the two of them were travelling in northern India. They wanted to see more of the country they’d both been born in, but hadn’t had a chance to explore when they were growing up. 

Between the time difference and their crazy travel schedule, we hadn’t had a chance to talk much, and we’d been playing phone tag for days. So I wasn’t surprised to hear my mom’s voice when I picked up the phone.

Immediately I knew something was wrong. My mom sounded panicked. “Dad’s in the hospital,” she said. "He had chest pain so I brought him to the hospital. He’s going to need surgery.” I asked her to slow down, to give me details. But there wasn’t time. The doctors needed her to give them his medical history, a list of medications, and anything else that could be important for them to know. She had to sign consent forms and guarantee payment.

It was all on her now. She was alone in the hospital, save for a kind airline employee and an employee of the local Board of Tourism, who’d heard what was happening at the airport when my dad became ill. They’d accompanied her to the airport. And then they'd gone above and beyond, staying with her throughout the day until my relatives, who were doing their best to quickly travel hundreds of miles get to the hospital, arrived.

We waited by the phone all morning. We were getting updates secondhand and third hand, as relatives and relatives of relatives tried to get information back to us in the U.S.

Finally we got word. My dad was out of surgery. Everything had gone as well as they could have hoped. Now he needed to rest and recover.

By now it was late afternoon. I went upstairs and fell asleep for a few hours. I hadn’t realized the toll that all those hours of waiting and worrying had taken.

When I woke up, my husband asked what I'd like him to pick up for dinner that night. We flipped through our standard takeout menus and I surprised him when I said “Indian.” That wasn’t a choice I usually made. He was much more likely than me to lobby for takeout from Little India or Kebab and Tandoor. 

But today I wanted to eat Indian food. Maybe to make myself feel closer to my parents in India. Maybe for the familiarity of tasting the flavors that I grew up eating. In any case, it was comforting to scoop up the shrimp korma and saag paneer with my naan and taste the familiar flavors of India.

Since Saturday I’ve craved comfort foods. No surprise there. When I'm stressed, I want food that feels warm, cozy, comfortable, safe. 

So I made this eggplant Parmesan. Eggplant Parmesan happens to be one of my dad's favorites too. When he gets back, I'll have to figure out a healthier version to make for him, maybe baking the eggplant instead of frying it, and cutting down on the cheese.

In the meantime, this version, with its crispy, crunchy breadcrumbs, creamy eggplant, and gooey cheese was just what the doctor ordered.

Start with the tomatoes. Drain properly (do a better job than I did), then toss with brown sugar, olive oil, and balsamic vinegar.

Spread tomatoes on a baking sheet, then bake until tomatoes are slightly caramelized. Set aside.

Now prepare the eggplant.

Peel and cut into even slices.

Place the slices on a cooling rack set over a baking sheet. Sprinkle both sides of each eggplant slice with salt, then let it sit for about 30 minutes. The salt will draw out some of the moisture and bitterness out of the eggplant. (You can see the drops of water on the surface of the eggplant here).

Pat the eggplant dry, then sprinkle with black pepper.

Prepare your breading assembly line -- flour, eggs, and panko breadcrumbs mixed with grated  Parmesan cheese. Season your flour and eggs with a bit of salt and pepper.

Heat your oil in a straight sided skillet. Then prepare a few slices of eggplant. Dip in flour, then egg (shake off excess), then cover completely with the panko/parmesan mixture.

Check to see if the oil is ready. I did this by dropping a panko crumb into the oil. When it sizzled on contact, I knew the oil was hot enough. Place a few slices of eggplant into the oil, then let it cook until the bottom is medium brown.

Flip the eggplant and cook for another few minutes.

Remove the eggplant slices and put them back on the cooling rack over the baking sheet. Immediately season with a little salt and pepper.

This is a rich dish, so I served it over a bed of salad. To assemble the eggplant, place a slice of eggplant on your dish (or on the salad). Put a piece of mozzarella on the eggplant. (You usually put the sauce over the eggplant but I like how the mozzarella melted a little into the warm eggplant). Then place a roasted tomato or two on top and drizzle with some of the tomato juice.

Dig in!

Eggplant Parmesan

Adapted from a recipe by Jeff Mauro

2 28-ounce cans whole tomatoes, drained well
4 Tbsp balsamic vinegar
2 Tbsp olive oil
2 Tbsp light brown sugar
1 large eggplant, peeled and sliced into 1/2-inch rounds
Freshly cracked black pepper
1 cup all-purpose flour, for dredging
2 large eggs, beaten
1 1/2 cups panko breadcrumbs
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan
Canola oil, for frying
8 ounces fresh mozzarella cheese, sliced

1.    Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and another baking sheet with a wire rack.

2.    In a bowl, toss the tomatoes with the balsamic vinegar, olive oil, brown sugar and some salt. Evenly place the tomatoes on the lined baking sheet. Place in the oven and roast until slightly caramelized and dried out a bit, 20 to 30 minutes. Set aside.

3.    Set the eggplant slices on the wire rack (if you don't have a rack you can use a colander set in the sink). Sprinkle salt on each side of the eggplant and let eggplant sit for 15 to 30 minutes.

4.    Once the salt has released moisture from the eggplant, pat the slices dry with paper towels. Then sprinkle each side of the eggplant with pepper.

5.    Set up a standard breading station with the flour in one shallow dish, the eggs in another and the panko mixed with the Parmesan in a third dish. Dredge each eggplant slice in the flour, shake off any excess, dip in the egg, let any excess drip off and then coat in the panko. Set aside on the wire rack and repeat.

6.    In a large straight-sided skillet, heat 1-inch vegetable oil to 350 degrees F.

7.    Working in small batches, fry the eggplant slices, turning once, until golden brown, 3 to 5 minutes a side. Using a pair of tongs, transfer back to the wire rack. Repeat with the remaining eggplant. Make sure to season the eggplant as it comes out of the oil.

8.    Place a slice or two of eggplant on a plate. Top with sliced mozzarella, then a couple of roasted tomatoes and some of the roasted tomato juice.

Serves 4

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