The hugely popular Southern Italian al-forno dish, eggplant parmesan (parmigiana di melanzane) is a delicious combination of smooth and silky aubergine, a home-made rich, herby, tomato sauce, plus mozzarella and Pecorino.
Eggplant parmesan recipe
Parmigiana di melanzane is my one of my ultimate comfort foods. It may even be my most favourite food in the entire world... after masala dosa.
Both Campania and Sicily claim it for their own, and given that Campania was formerly part of il Regno di Sicilia (the Kingdom of Sicily), this is not surprising.
According to friends and family, my eggplant parmesan is the best they've ever had. High praise indeed!
What is eggplant parmesan?
Firstly, parmigiana is not Parmigiano or Parmesan!
Most non-Italians I come across erroneously believe that the name of this dish comes from the use of the hard cheese, Parmigiano-Reggiano. Hence calling it eggplant parmesan.
However, the name actually reflects the arrangement of the aubergines/eggplants (melanzane). Since each slice slightly overlaps the previous, it resembles the slats on a wooden shutter. In Sicilian dialect, parmiciana is the word given to wooden shutter slats, while palmigiana is the shutter itself - parmigiana is merely a combination of these two words, and nothing to do with cheese. At all!
In addition, Parmigiano-Reggiano comes from the northern Italian regions of Emilia-Romagna and Lombardia, so it's highly unlikely that it would form part of a southern culinary tradition.
The correct cheese to use is Pecorino (pecora is the Italian word for sheep), which is, as you may have gathered, made from ewes' milk. Parmigiano-Reggiano is made from cows' milk.
Italian Cheese Trivia
Pecorino is an ancient cheese, which was eaten by Roman legionaries. Its production was mentioned by Pliny the Elder in his encyclopaedia, Naturalis Historia (Natural History).
There are five types of Pecorino:
- P. sardo (from Sardinia)
- P. toscano (the only northern Italian version - from Tuscany)
- P. siciliano (in Sicilian dialect, it's called Picurinu Sicilianu)
- P. di siliano (from Basilicata)
- P. romano
Until 1884, when a city law was enacted which prohibited the salting of cheese in shops, Pecorino romano was produced exclusively in Latium (and from whence we get the word, Latin) which is now modern-day Lazio. These days, however, most of it is produced on Sardinia.
Ingredients for eggplant parmesan
- aubergines (eggplants)
- egg or aquafaba
- plain (all-purpose) flour
- tomato sauce
- mozzarella or vegan mozzarella
- Pecorino or vegan parmesan
- fresh basil
- salt & pepper
How to make eggplant parmesan
Prepare the aubergines (eggplants) by slicing them quite thickly, put into a colander, and sprinkle with salt. Weigh them down, and leave in the sink for half an hour or so to 'sweat'. Pre-heat your oven to 175°C/350°F.
Once the aubergines are ready, rinse well, and pat dry with a clean tea-towel or some kitchen roll. Rinse and dry the mozzarella.
Put the flour, salt, and pepper into a large bag, dip the slices of aubergine in the beaten egg (or aquafaba), then pop them into the bag. Hold the top of the bag closed, and give it a good shake.
Heat the oil in a skillet, and add 3-4 of the floured aubergine slices. Fry over a medium-high heat for a minute or so, then flip over, and cook the other side. Remove from the skillet, and place onto kitchen paper. Repeat for the rest of the aubergine. Cut the mozzarella into slices about ½cm (c.¼") thick.
Start with a thin layer of tomato sauce on the bottom of a suitably-sized baking dish. Arrange a layer of aubergine slices on top, so that each one slightly overlaps its neighbour. Add another layer of sauce, and then a layer of mozzarella. Continue this way, finishing with a layer of tomato sauce.
Bake in the oven for about 45 mins. The eggplant parmesan is cooked when it is starting to brown on top and the aubergines are soft. Once it's done, remove from the oven, and sprinkle the Pecorino (or vegan parmesan) over the top, along with some torn basil leaves.
At first glance, it may seem like a bit of messing around but honestly, it’s really worth the effort, and if you've already made your tomato sauce, half of the work is already done, and the only actual cooking is frying the aubergines.
Frying the eggplants
I've tried making low-fat versions of this dish, and to be perfectly honest, I just don't believe it's worth sacrificing flavour for the sake of saving a few calories.
I've tried brushing the aubergine slices with oil, and then grilling them - this results in not as much depth of flavour and richness. I've tried just coating each slice with flour, and not pre-grilling or frying but this gives a very thin and bland-tasting dish, which is quite horrible.
Honestly though, eggplant parmesan is not something you’d eat every day of the week, so I don’t see it as a problem to have the 'fully-loaded' version. Since I cook it perhaps once every couple of months, I can live with a little more fat than I would usually consume in a meal.
BTW, when pre-cooking the aubergine slices, you want them to just start to turn golden; it’s best to do it a few slices at a time. If you don’t, there’ll be too much steam and they'll just be a soggy mess. You’re basically aiming to give each slice a little fried coat, not to actually cook them.
Notes for making eggplant parmesan
How long can eggplant parmesan be kept?
Leftovers can be covered up, and kept in the 'fridge for 2-3 days.
Can I freeze it?
No! Honestly, just don't even think about freezing eggplant parmesan - it's a world of ick that no one needs to experience.
Is it really necessary to salt eggplant?
Smaller, young aubergines don’t need to be salted, and most of the varieties grown in Europe these days have been bred to have no bitterness. However, if you’re in any doubt, it’s best to play it safe.
What kind of oven dish should I use for my eggplant parmesan?
I find a lasagne dish is best but don’t worry if you don’t have one - any large-ish ovenproof container at least 5cm (2") deep will be fine.
How much Pecorino should I use?
How much you use is entirely up to you - I like a thin ‘crust’ but some people like it thick. If you're counting calories, don't forget to factor in the extra cheese if you use more.
Why do I have to bake it for so long?
Because under-cooked aubergines are nasty. When checking to see if the dish is cooked, do make sure they really are very soft.
Can you recommend a salad to eat with eggplant parmesan?
My favourite green salad consists of spicy rocket (arugula), baby spinach, watercress, and a little sorrel or lovage to give a bit of zing.
Because it's really a meal in itself, I like to keep things simple, and serve mine with some fresh crusty bread and a crisp, green salad. This is such a wonderful meal. I really hope you love this eggplant parmesan as much as we do. Buon appetito!
Eggplant Parmesan (parmigiana di melanzane)
- 1 kg large aubergines (eggplants)
- 3 medium eggs (or approx 120ml / ½ cup aquafaba)
- 30 g plain (all-purpose) flour
- ¼ teaspoon sea salt
- ¼ teaspoon ground black pepper
- 120 ml sunflower oil (or vegetable oil of your choice)
- 500 ml Italian tomato sauce
- 250 g mozzarella (vegan or dairy)
- 30 g Pecorino (or vegan parmesan), grated
- A few fresh basil leaves , torn
- Prepare your aubergines by slicing them quite thickly (c.2cm/1" thick). Put them in a colander, and sprinkle with salt. Weigh them down (I use a side plate with a heavy pan on top) and leave in the sink for half an hour or so (the salt will make the aubergines ‘sweat’, extracting any bitterness).
- Pre-heat your oven to 175°C/350°F.
- Once the aubergines are ready, rinse well, and pat dry with a clean tea-towel or some kitchen roll.
- Rinse and dry the mozzarella.
Pre-cook the aubergines
- By far the easiest and least messy way of flouring them is to put the flour into a large plastic bag, along with the salt and pepper. Dip the slices of aubergine into the aquafaba, then pop them into the bag; hold the top of the bag closed, and shake it all up.
- Heat the oil in a skillet, and add 3-4 of the floured aubergine slices.
- Fry over a medium-high heat for a minute or so, then flip over, and cook the other side. Remove from the skillet, and place onto kitchen paper.
- Repeat for the rest of the aubergine.
- Cut the mozzarella into slices about ½cm (c.¼") thick.
- In a large oven dish, start with a thin layer of tomato sauce, then arrange a layer of aubergine slices on top, so that each one slightly overlaps its neighbour (like those shutter slats). Add another layer of sauce, and then a layer of mozzarella. Continue this way, finishing with a layer of tomato sauce.
- Bake in the oven for about 45 mins. Do check it though because as we know, all ovens are not created equal - you don’t want it to burn.
- The dish is cooked when it is starting to brown on top and the aubergines are soft.
- Once it's done, remove from the oven, and sprinkle the Pecorino over the top, along with some torn basil. Serve with a simple green salad and some fresh bread.
- Leftovers can be covered up, and kept in the 'fridge for 2-3 days. Do not freeze.
- 1 cup = US cup = 240 ml
- 1 tablespoon = US/UK = 15 ml
- 1 fl oz = US = 30 ml