I've never been a big fan of eggplant. The oblong, deep purple nightshade has always struck me as somewhat bland and mealy.
Then I discovered eggplant parmigiana while staying at Fontana del Papa, a farm and cooking school an hour east of Rome. Matilde Viozzi, the 60-year-old instructor and expert in Italian cuisine from Tolfa, introduced me to this classic recipe, and after tasting a rich, savory slice of it I was converted. The dish managed to turn the thick-skinned, flavorless vegetable into a silky textured treat with profound depth of flavor.
While I cooked more than a dozen dishes during my three-day stay at Fontana del Papa, this was probably the tastiest and most comforting.
Matilde made the red sauce with medium-sized spring onions, which were smaller than leeks but larger than green onions and had a peppery bite unlike anything I'd tasted. Since I could not find the same onions here, I added garlic and shallot to replicate the intense flavor. The results were delicious and comparable to the version I learned in Italy.
The modified recipe and step-by-step process is shown below as I learned it at Fontana del Papa.
20 basil leaves, diced
1 small onion, diced
2 tablespoons diced shallot
2 cloves garlic, minced
a pinch of red pepper flakes
3, 15-ounce cans crushed tomato
1/4 cup olive oil
2 medium eggplant
1-1/2 cup grated mozzarella
2 cups finely grated parmesan
About 2 cups vegetable oil for frying
About 1-1/2 cups all purpose flour for dredging
For the sauce. Combine garlic, onion, shallot, basil, red pepper flakes, and olive oil. Simmer for about five minutes over medium heat and then add the tomato. Season with salt and pepper and let simmer for about 30 - 40 minutes. Set aside or store in the refrigerator until you're ready to layer it with the eggplant. The sauce is best when it's made in advance.
For the eggplant. Slice the eggplant lengthwise into half-inch think pieces, salt both sides, then let them sit for 20 minutes. This draws out the moisture. After 20 minutes, rinse, and then pat dry with a kitchen towel.
Matilde dries the eggplant.
Dredge the eggplant slices in flour and set aside.
Heat the vegetable oil in a pan until it's very hot and fry the eggplant for about 1-2 minutes on each side or until slightly golden.
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Cover the bottom of the pan with sauce and then layer with the eggplant slices, fitting them in the pan like pieces in a puzzle. Use kitchen scissors to cut the slices down to fill in gaps as needed.
Add another layer of sauce over the eggplant and then cover with 1 cup parmesan and 3/4 cup mozzarella. Add another layer of eggplant and cover with sauce.
Sprinkle the rest of the parmesan evenly over the layer of sauce and then top with the remaining mozzarella. Bake for 20 minutes or until the top is golden brown.
My plate at Fontana del Papa