A good while ago now, I took an incredible cooking class.
In the kitchen of one of the province’s premier restaurants on a night when they were closed to the public, I donned an apron and learned how to prepare a work station with a wet dishtowel-steadied cutting board. Chef Michael Howell taught me how to properly dice an onion, not to mention how to wield a professional kitchen-sharp chef’s knife without losing a fingertip. He shared with us a selection of recipes from Puglia in Italy, and bravely mentored myself and a handful of other home cooks with high aspirations through the process of preparing the dishes.
The evening was punctuated not just with knife-skill lessons but with the sharing of some fresh, raw cheese procured from Chef’s travels, and a glass of icy Limoncello, to the delight of those of us who had never sipped that simultaneously mouth-puckering but sweet Italian elixir.
I have been to plenty of “cooking classes” where the chef stands in front of hot plate preparing food for wine-drinking onlookers. I have even been teased for being the single camera-toting participant, taking hundreds of pictures of the food in what would have looked like awe at its’ beauty but was instead a frustrating quest to achieve the correct white balance in the bright fluorescents of a professional kitchen.
We made this eggplant Parmesan that night, and I discovered a thing or two about the best canned tomatoes in the world and the creation of a vegetarian dish that would convert any dedicated carnivore with its’ hearty slabs of breaded eggplant and layer after layer of melted Parmesan cheese. I have since made this dish time and time again, knowing that it is one that will wow anyone who comes to dinner, and makes a perfect potluck contribution.
- 1 medium eggplant
- Sea salt
- 1/2 pound mozzarella, grated
- 1 large egg, beaten
- 1/2 - 3/4 cup all purpose flour
- Olive oil
- 2 cups tomato sauce
- 2/3 cup Parmesan, grated
- 1 tsp. dried basil
- Salt and pepper to taste
- I can tomatoes - San Marzano are the best
- 1 onion, chopped finely
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- Olive oil for frying
- Salt and pepper to taste
- The Eggplant
- Slice the eggplant horizontally into 3/4" thick slices. Lay the slabs out on dish towels and sprinkle them liberally with sea salt. Allow them to sit like this as the water drains from the eggplant for at least 30 minutes.
- After the eggplant have rested at least half an hour, quickly rinse the sea salt off in a stream of cool water and pat the slices dry with your dish towel.
- Now heat some olive oil in a large skillet and prepare two bowls, one with your egg and one with the flour. Once the olive oil is quite hot, dip your eggplant slices first in the egg and then in the flour (both sides) and toss them in the olive oil, frying them until they are nice and brown on the outside. As they finish, you can set them on a paper towel to soak up any extra oil until you’re finished frying and ready for the next step.
- Tomato Sauce
- For the simplest tomato sauce, fry the onion and garlic in a very generous pour of olive oil until translucent. Add the can of tomatoes and simmer at least 20 minutes. Season to taste.
- The Assembly
- Preheat your oven to 375F. Spread a layer of tomato sauce in the bottom of a 9X12 glass baking dish. Add a layer of mozzarella and Parmesan, sprinkled with the dried oregano, salt and pepper. Nestle slices of eggplant next to each other until they form a tight layer over the sauce. Now add another sauce, cheese and spices layer, then eggplant, and so on, until you run out. The final layer is a sauce/cheese/spice layer.
- Bake until the sauce is bubbling and the cheese is golden. Though it can be eaten immediately, this dish is best served lukewarm, or even the next day, when the flavours have had a chance to meld.