The Practically Perfect Eggplant Parmesan That Proves Less Is More
Unlike spaghetti and meatballs and chicken Parm, eggplant Parm is a true Italian dish. In Italy, you’ll find a version of it in Sicily and another in and around Naples — both of which are different from the Italian-American version served stateside.
Emiko Davies, an Italy-based food writer and cookbook author, helped me understand the varied nuances of eggplant Parmesan. I’ve long admired Emiko for her attention to detail and authenticity, so I was eager to try her recipe on Food52, where she’s a regular contributor, and include it in our celebrity recipe showdown. Her parmigiana di melanzane, or eggplant parmigiana, stems from Sicily, and eschews many of the features many of us associate with the dish (namely, the mozzarella). Here’s how it went when I gave it a go.
Get the recipe: Parmigiana di Melanzane (Eggplant Parmigiana)
How to Make Emiko Davies’ Eggplant Parmigiana on Food52
Emiko Davies’ recipe on Food52 is incredibly straightforward, but what makes it stand out is its attention to detail. You’ll start by peeling the eggplant, thinly slicing it, laying the rounds in a colander, and generously salting them. Let the slices rest for an hour, during which they’ll “weep a brownish, bitter liquid.” This step ensures the eggplant won’t soak up too much of the oil when fried.
While the eggplant is resting, you’ll sauté an onion in a medium pot or high-sided pan until softened. Add a jar of tomato passata, which is uncooked tomato purée that has been strained of seeds and skins, followed by a handful of fresh basil leaves and a pinch of salt. Gently simmer for about 25 minutes until the mixture has thickened a bit.
Rinse the eggplant slices to remove excess salt and pat them dry. Heat vegetable oil in a wide, deep pan and fry the slices until golden-brown, transferring them to a paper towel-lined baking sheet to drain as you go. You’ll then assemble the parmigiana by layering the sauce, fried eggplant, torn fresh basil leaves, and grated caciocavallo cheese (a traditional Sicilian cheese similar to provolone) or Parmesan cheese, and bake for about 30 minutes until golden brown and bubbling.
My Honest Review of Emiko’s Eggplant Parmigiana
I was eager to try this recipe because of its simplicity — I don’t like my eggplant muddled with too many breadcrumbs and cheese. And I was impressed: Considering how few ingredients it contains, this eggplant Parm is deeply flavorful. I was worried the tomato sauce would lack flavor because it didn’t contain garlic, but I found I didn’t miss the garlic at all (and I’m definitely a garlic-lover). I also didn’t miss the cheese pulls from the mozzarella. Instead, the fried eggplant had time to shine.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t get my hands on caciocavallo cheese — and it ended up affecting my overall rating of the dish. Emiko recommends using grated Parmesan as a replacement, which I did, but I’ve enjoyed caciocavallo previously and know it melts better. The Parmesan just browned rather than melted, and because I used it as a full replacement and grated 8 ounces of it — or two full cups — it made the dish a bit too salty.
If You’re Making Emiko’s Eggplant Parmesan, a Few Tips
- Take the time to salt the eggplant. This step may sound fussy, but it’s 100% worth doing. The eggplant didn’t soak up as much oil as it typically does when it’s fried, which made this recipe stand out from the others I tested.
- Don’t worry if you can’t find tomato passata. While it was once hard to find outside of Italian specialty stores, tomato passata is becoming easier to find at regular grocery stores in the canned tomato aisle. It’s sold in cartons or glass jars, labeled as tomato passata, passato, passata di pomodoro, or simply “strained tomatoes.” It often comes in 24-ounce bottles. The recipe calls for 17 ounces, which is a bit over 2 cups, so save what’s left to make pizza sauce another day. If you can’t find it, don’t sweat it: Use tomato purée or crushed tomatoes.
- Do try to seek out caciocavallo cheese, though. While the recipe states that you can use Parmesan in place of the caciocavallo cheese, after trying it, I don’t think it’s a great substitute. Caciocavallo is an aged, semi-soft cow’s or sheep’s milk cheese found in Sicily and throughout parts of Southern Italy. It’s most similar to provolone, with a slightly salty, mild flavor that’s pleasantly spicy and earthy. You’ll find it in Italian markets, specialty cheese stores, and even on Amazon. Otherwise, opt for aged provolone, which is often labeled as piccante.
Have you ever made this eggplant parmigiana recipe? Tell us what you thought!