La Melanzana Parmigiana is one of the great recipes of Italy, a marvel of rich simplicity. Lightly fried slices of eggplant are baked with prosciutto, a little tomato sauce, and a little grated parmigiano to brown on top.
In Ada Boni’s classic recipe, which appears in the Emiglia-Romana section of her cookbook Italian Regional Cooking (Bonanza Books, 1969), there is none of the creamy ricotta cheese we Americans love in our eggplant parmigian, the kind from a pizzeria.
Ada Boni became the queen of the Italian kitchen with the publication of her first book, Il Tallismano della Felicita (The Talisman of Happiness) in 1927. It was an instant treasure in kitchens all over the country, and was eventually condensed for an American version in 1950, with a strangely truncated title. Her second book, La Cucina Romana, followed in 1930, and is still considered the authority on the traditional Roman kitchen. She was a Roman her whole life, and wrote her first recipe at 10. (Read more here)
The classic is indeed delicious, but I confess to loving the pizzeria version also. If you can get fresh ricotta, do. If not, add some cottage cheese (for creaminess) and plain yogurt, which gives it a little zing. (Real ricotta doesn’t exactly have zing, but it makes the store-bought ricotta less waxy.)
La Signora Boni would surely be disappointed in this recipe, but I don’t think you will be.
LA MELANZANA PROVINCETOWNIANA
2 firm eggplants, about 1 ½ lbs. each
1 1 lbs. can best quality peeled tomatoes
1 large white or yellow onion, peeled and finely chopped, about 2 cups
4-6 cloves garlic, peeled and thinly sliced, about 1 heaping tablespoon
1 lbs best quality whole milk ricotta (or not)
1 ½ cups whole milk cottage cheese*
½ cup plain yogurt*
2 cups freshly grated Parmigiano Regiano, plus slivers
½ tablespoon dried oregano or 1 tablespoon fresh, finely chopped
olive oil, about 3/4 cup
salt and pepper
unseasoned breadcrumbs, about ½ cup
Heat oven to 375. Lightly oil a 9” x 12” baking pan, toss the crumbs around to coat, and save the remainder in a bowl. Wash the eggplants with a little soapy water, rinse thoroughly, and dry, but don’t peel them. Slice off the tops and bottoms and discard. Slice them into ½” rounds. (If you like, layer them in a colander with about 3 tablespoons salt sprinkled between slices; some say this reduces bitterness, but I don’t bother as I like eggplant’s bight. Quickly rinse the salt and pat dry before proceeding) Make a simple tomato sauce by heating about ¼ oil in a medium sauté pan; slice the garlic thinly and cook till fragrant over medium heat; or, cook the whole cloves until golden and then discard. Add the herbs and let them cook till fragrant. Crush the tomatoes with your hand (or used chopped tomatoes) and add to the pan, without their juice. Let the tomatoes boil, reduce the heat, and cook, uncovered, for about 20 minutes until slightly thickened. Stir occasionally so they don’t stick to the pan. *Meanwhile, if you’re using grocery store ricotta, stir to blend with cottage cheese, ½ cup of the grated cheese and yogurt together in a bowl, and season with salt and pepper. If you like, dust the eggplant with a little flour before browning the slices on both sides in hot oil in a wide sauté pan. (Start with half the oil, and ad as needed.) Salt and pepper slices as you cook them. Drain on paper towels as they are finished. Cover the bottom of the baking pan with a big handful of grated cheese, then some friend eggplant, then some cheese mixture. Continue to layer, ending with eggplant and some dribbles of tomato sauce. (I save the smaller, end slices for the top.) Sprinkle with remaining grated cheese and crumbs, and put a sliver of cheese on each slice of eggplant. Drizzle a little olive oil over all, and bake till bubbling hot, about 45 minutes. (You won’t use all the tomato sauce.)
Like potatoes, tomatoes, sweet peppers and hundreds of other diverse plants including tobacco and morning glory flower, eggplant are “nightshades,” because some blossom in the dark. These humble vegetables (a few of the scores in the genus) also share certain chemical properties that, in their long, long existence, have been blamed for everything from epilepsy to insanity. The Italian melanzana originally meant “crazy apple.” (Some still hold eggplants increase inflammation.) The Brits and their colonies call eggplant “aubergine,” from French, where the word may have its root in Sanskrit texts. In English, “eggplant” became they name of the small, white, egg-shaped variety – one of many – that became a favorite of colonials in India.