Thursday, April 10, 2008

Baked Eggplant Parmesan

One of my early memories of helping out my mom in the kitchen is making eggplant parmesan once a month on Sunday evenings. As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to help in the kitchen. When I was really little, I was allowed to stir things (initially ones that weren’t on the stove, but as I got older, the stove was no longer off-limits) and I beat eggs on Sunday mornings for omelettes and stirred in seasonings, but I think that this dish was one of the first things with which she really let me get my hands dirty – both literally and figuratively. My mom would slice up the eggplant and prepare the bowl of dredging liquid (she used a thin batter made of chickpea flour and water), and she did all the frying. But I was completely in charge of everything else.
I loved dipping my hands (oh, and the eggplant slices, too) into the dredging solution and then coating them in breadcrumbs. My hands would always end up a huge, sticky, crumby mess after completing a few slices, but some vigorous scraping and washing was all I needed to get back to next batch. I always laid out the finished slices on a few plates so that my mom could get them into the hot oil and not have to wait too long between batches. While she was frying the slices, I made sure to have paper towel-lined plates ready for her on which the eggplant could drain. I always used to sneak a few slices – fried eggplant is so good, and you all know how I feel about eggplant, so how could I resist?
When the slices were cool, I would count how many there were so I could create even layers (early signs of perfectionism). Assembling, baking, and serving were all left to me, and I loved that my mom trusted me to do all these things.

Now, many years later, I still love and crave eggplant parm, but there was no way I was going to make it by frying the slices (in case you haven’t noticed, I’m on a mission to make fried foods in a non-fried way). In the past, I’ve battered and breaded the slices and then baked them, but the texture of the eggplant wasn’t quite right – it was kind of leathery and dry. Not good. I did pan fry the eggplant one time, but I truly hated that experience and vowed to never do it again.

Then, last night, I had the brilliant revelation of partially cooking the eggplant slices in the microwave before coating and baking them. As we all learned last week, eggplant comes out awesome when it’s steamed in the microwave – the flesh turns smooth and creamy but not at all mushy, and even better is that the amount of oil required to do so is minimal.

I will admit that I overcooked the eggplant on my first go at it – I cooked it for 3 minutes covered, then I uncovered it and cooked it for another 2 minutes. Bad move – the eggplant ended up fully cooked and it was way too soft to hold up to the subsequent coating and baking. Luckily I had another eggplant in the fridge, and this time around, I decided to go with shorter cooking times – 2 minutes covered and 1 minute uncovered. The eggplant came out just right – it was slightly tender but still firm enough to be able to withstand the coating and further baking (during which it would get fully tender).

Although the entire process of steaming in the microwave, cooling, and baking in the oven took a little longer than frying would have, I think this process was considerably easier and healthier, and most importantly, the texture of the eggplant was wonderful – it was tender and creamy but not mushy, and perfectly cooked without being oily. I am really loving this baking-not-frying mission of mine.


No-Fry Baked Eggplant Parmesan
(serves 4)

1 medium-large eggplant (about 1 pound)
3 tablespoons olive oil
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
¾ cup all-purpose flour
1 egg
1 ½ cups panko bread crumbs
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon dried basil
½ teaspoon dried parsley
¼ teaspoon dried oregano

1 cup tomato sauce (I like to use homemade)
¼ teaspoon red chili flakes (to stir into the sauce – this is entirely optional, but I like things spicy)
1 ½ cups shredded mozzarella cheese (preferably fresh mozzarella)


Heat an oven to 425° F. Line a large baking sheet with foil and set it aside. 

Wash and dry the eggplant. Slice the eggplant into ½” thick slices – you should have 12-16 slices. Pour half of the olive oil, half of the salt, and half of the pepper into a pie plate or large microwave-safe dish, and mix well to combine. Put half of the eggplant slices into the pie plate, rubbing each side of each slice well in the olive oil mixture. Cover the pie plate/dish with a large microwave-safe plate/cover and microwave on high power for 2 minutes. Remove the cover and microwave on high power for 1 more minute. Carefully remove the cover and transfer the eggplant to a plate to cool (I put the plate in the freezer for a few minutes to speed up the process). Repeat the process with the remaining eggplant slices.

Put the flour onto a plate. Crack the egg into a bowl and beat well. Put the panko, salt, basil, parsley, and oregano onto another plate and mix well to combine.

Dip an eggplant slice in the flour, making sure to coat both sides and the edges of the slice. Tap off any excess flour. Dip the floured slice in the beaten egg and let any excess drip off. Put the coated slice on the seasoned panko and put a handful of the breadcrumbs on top of the slice. Press down on the slice to make sure the panko adheres. Roll the edges of the slice in the panko to fully coat it. Place the coated slice onto the foil-lined sheet. Repeat this process with all of the slices.

Bake the eggplant slices until the panko are browned on the edges and lightly golden on top, about 25 minutes. Lower the oven temperature to 400° F. Let the eggplant slices cool on the baking sheet for a few minutes, then gently twist them to remove them from the foil.
Put 1 tablespoon of sauce in the bottom of each of four 6-ounce ramekins. Put one eggplant slice on top of the sauce, top it with another tablespoon of sauce, and top the sauce with 1 tablespoon of cheese. Repeat the layering (eggplant, sauce, cheese), using a total of 3-4 slices per ramekin and ending with the cheese. Place the ramekins on a baking sheet and bake at 400° F until the cheese is golden brown and the sauce is bubbly, about 15 minutes. Serve immediately.


mbbored said...

I realize this takes even longer, but I slice my eggplant, brush or spritz with olive oil, then roast in a single layer at 400, for 4 minutes a side. It's good for those of us without (reliable) microwaves.

Meghan said...

mbbored answered my question.... what to do if you dont have a microwave (no room for one)...

Julie said...

I don't have a microwave either although when I read things like this it makes me think I should finally get around to purchasing one.

I love eggplant parmesan and your version sounds delicious.

John said...

I totally think the microwave is just another tool for cooking, not some blasphemous thing that doesn't belong in the kitchen. I get plenty of use out of mine, that's for sure.

It's late in mentioning, but congrats on getting in the paper. And not just the local one - the New York Times! Neat!!!

K8teebug said...

This method seems like it really worked! I heart panko.

Alison said...

I made this on Saturday and it was so good! The eggplant was perfect. I am never frying it again. Thanks!

Mary said...

I used to make eggplant parm with my mother, too. My favorite part was eating the fried slices, though...I will definitely try this, as I adore eggplant.

I read about you in Mark Bitman's column, then found you later through blog-hopping. Love your blog!

Bentoist said...

I tried your recipe tonight with minor modifications, and it is delicious. My carnivore of a husband was amazed how the dish is so hearty yet meatless. Thanks for the recipe and the microwave timing. It's GREAT!

Anonymous said...

I made this last night and it was excellent! I did not have the ramekins, so I just spread sauce on bottom of casserole dish, then layered the eggplant with a little sauce on top& mozzarella.
Also, I am sure it is just an oversight, but the parmesan was left out of the recipe ingredients. I added a 1/2 c to the panko.

Anonymous said...

I’m so happy you have found a smart alternative to frying. It’s amazing that they don’t come out mushy in the microwave! I make eggplant parm with my mom as well and our sole complaint is that they soak up too much oil. We tried baking them, but they turned out to be flavorless.

By Little and By Little said...

This is a brilliant recipe! I've been looking for this since forever. This sounds ridiculous, but deep-frying eggplant always reminds me of what we are doing to the earth. It starts out ok - when the oil is fresh and clean and each slice slides in neatly. But then the batter starts burning and soon you have this mass of black roiling sludge, but you can't stop because the meal has to be made and it's going to TASTE delicious, even if it kills you.

Like the effluents from the candy factory!

Sorry. Carried away. Wonderful recipe! I am sharing your blog with other friends. Thanks so much!

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