“Star Wars” is known by billions throughout the world, a collection of stories so beloved and debated that even if someone hasn’t seen the movies — and yes, those people exist — they can still probably recognize Yoda. I was one of those people who had not seen or wanted anything to do with “Star Wars.” During the pandemic, I found myself exploring new media and literature. I could not put off Star Wars any longer. I knew people liked it, but I didn’t think I would.
I promise, the anecdote is coming to an end. We’ve arrived at the eggplant.
Some people don’t want to give it a try because they don’t know it’s good. I’m writing today to convince you to make this dish, just as I was convinced to watch “Star Wars.” Both are now mainstays in my household.
I guarantee, it’s good.
Serves: 4 to 6.
Prep time: 35-40 minutes.
Bake time: 20 minutes.
Total time: 1 hour.
- 2 large eggplants, cut into 18-24 1-centimeter-thick rounds
- 32 ounces crushed tomatoes
- 2 ounces tomato paste
- 4 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 medium sweet or yellow onion, finely diced
- 2 teaspoons each of the following: dried basil, dried Italian oregano, granulated garlic
- 1 teaspoon sweetener (optional)
- 1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar (optional)
- 1 teaspoon red chili flakes (optional)
- 12-16 fresh basil leaves, stems reserved
- 12-16 fresh mozzarella slices
- 1 ½ cups freshly grated Parmesan cheese
- 1 ½ cups flour
- 1 cup Italian breadcrumbs
- 1 cup panko
- 3 eggs
- olive oil
- high heat oil, for frying — alternatively, unflavored cooking spray for airfrying
- Kosher salt and black pepper
- Deep frying pan or Dutch oven, for frying — alternatively, an air fryer.
- Standard large baking dish.
- Paper towels, for draining cooking oil.
- 3 wide bowls.
- Cookie sheet.
Cut the eggplant into ¼-inch slices and place them on a lined cookie sheet. Sprinkle with kosher salt and let sit for 10 minutes.
Heat a drizzle of olive oil in a large skillet. Dice the onion and mince the garlic. Add to the hot pan and saute on medium heat until lightly caramelized. Then add the red chili flakes, the dried herbs and the basil stems. After a couple of minutes, add half the granulated garlic and the tomato paste and incorporate. After another minute, add the tomatoes, sweetener and vinegar. When the tomatoes are heated through, taste for salt and sweetness. Simmer on low until the casserole is ready to be constructed.
Fill a Dutch oven or hefty frying pan with an inch of high-temperature cooking oil. Set on a large, stable burner and heat to medium-low. Depending on the type of stove, heating the oil properly can take as long as 10 minutes. While the oil comes to temperature, add the following three things to the bowls: To the first bowl, add the flour, the remaining granulated garlic, salt and black pepper and combine. To the middle bowl, add the eggs and whisk. To the third bowl, add the panko and breadcrumbs.
Pat the eggplant slices dry, as the salt will have drawn moisture to the surface. Coat each slice of eggplant with flour, then egg, then breadcrumbs. Set aside. Depending on the size of the Dutch oven, fry in small batches of three to four. It’s important to not crowd the oil, or the temperature will drop and result in greasy slices. Fry for 3 minutes on each side. To drain the eggplant, hold it above the Dutch oven and gently shake off any excess oil; then place on the cookie sheet lined with paper towels. Repeat until all eggplant has been fried. Lightly salt the slices.
(For airfrying, the same breading process applies. Spray slices with unflavored cooking spray and air fry at 300 degrees for 5 minutes in small batches.)
Remove the basil stems from the sauce. Ladle 1 cup of sauce into the bottom of the baking dish. Then, construct the stacks in the following order: eggplant, Parmesan, spoonful of sauce, eggplant, Parmesan, basil leaf, spoonful of sauce, mozzarella, eggplant, Parmesan, spoonful of sauce, mozzarella. By the end, there should be multiple stacks with three slices of eggplant apiece. Bake at 350 degrees for 20-25 minutes. Garnish with fresh basil.
Where to Find:
Eggplant: Often overlooked in the produce section, this veggie can actually be found almost anywhere. Look for firm, medium-sized fruit with skin that’s almost black but still definitely purple.
Cheeses: Fresh mozzarella cheese and Parmesan cheese can both be found in the refrigerated or deli section of the grocery store. Fresh mozzarella is usually packaged in water, and the best Parmesan comes as a chunk.
Tomatoes: Canned tomatoes from the San Marzano region of Italy can be found next to other canned tomatoes, but will cost you a dollar or two extra.
Canned tomatoes can taste tinny and sometimes sour. For this recipe, I recommend finding quality tomatoes, but those are not always accessible. Using whatever is in the pantry, enliven basic tomatoes using a little bit of sugar, honey or whatever sweetener you have around, a small teaspoon of balsamic vinegar and the herbs.
Season as you go — you must. Just as it’s always a good idea to tidy up as you cook, you must season as you go.
If you’re making this for a larger crowd, the sauce recipe can be stretched to serve with pasta.
Most importantly, adjust the recipe to your personal taste. The most important thing is whether you like it or not!
Winn is a home cook and eggplant apologist. She can be reached at @food_for_winners on Instagram or at email@example.com.