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I like to eat. Because I like to eat, I like to cook, especially for friends I like to eat with. That’s what this blog is about: what I lik...

November 6, 2013

Blog the Twenty-first: Is it really Eggplant alla Parmigiana, or rather alla parmiciana?


Fact is, no one knows—which only goes to show how uninteresting facts really are.  At best, if well chosen, they’ll point out what needs explaining, but they rarely explain it.  They may speak for themselves, as the saying goes, but they don’t have much to say about anything else.  Mostly they just assert themselves, as things needing to be explained. 

A true fact can be a right answer, but a right answer isn’t a reason why.  A reason isn’t just another fact [lest we end up with an endless train of facts and no explanation …], but rather a relation between facts—as of a cause to its effect, or an intention to its end, or a source to its issue.  At best, facts supply the matter of an explanation which, by relating them aright, reveals the truth of the matter.  But as any good liar well knows, you can arrange facts as well to occlude as to reveal the truth.  What you need to tell the truth, more than the facts, is a good story.  There’s an Italian saying, Sed non è vero, è ben detto—“If it’s not true, it’s well said.”  What should happen sometimes tells the truth better than what does happen.

Case in point:  I’ve always been perplexed by Eggplant alla Parmigiana’s being called alla Parmigiana, i.e., Parma-style—Parma being North Italy’s celebrated capital of Parmigiano-Reggiano.  But eggplant parmigiana (dropping the alla in English, with compensatory decapitalization) seems so very southern:  sun-loving eggplant topped with zesty red sauce, oozing sweaty mozzarella—for which South Italy's Campanian buffalo are so famous—and showered with gratings of tangy Pecorino Romano. What do Parmesan cows have to do with any of that, I ask myself.   

So I start working up a diatribe against the pretensions of the Parmesans, about how the true origin of a thing should be credited to its final perfecter rather than its first confecter; that it is not its factual birth that reveals its true nature, but its full flowering; that, whatever inchoate beginnings this eggplant dish may have had among the Parmesans, its true form was clearly achieved in South Italy and disseminated thence throughout the Americas by its emigres ….  You get the idea.

But a Google-search sucked all the bluster out of my diatribe’s sails, with the fact that nobody knows why it’s called alla Parmigiana, since it’s clearly not a Parmesan dish.  One story would have it that the name comes from the use of Parmigiano-Reggiano  in the dish.  Well, albeit true that I know of southern Italian grandmothers who tuck little chunks of Parmigiano in between the eggplant slices, it seems strange that the dish should take its name from this flourish, however precious that ever-pricey cheese. 

Another story goes that parmigiana is a corruption of parmiciana, a Sicilian word meaning "louver"—like the overlapping slats of a louvered door—to describe the way the fried eggplant slices are layered in the pan.  Now that’s a story as charming as it is plausible!  But, there’s a contending claim that the dish is in fact of Neopolitan origin, and in parts of South America it is, in fact, called eggplant alla Napolitana. 

Imagine my dismay, Gentle Reader, to discover that my quarrel is not with Parmesan pretenders, but internecine!, stabbing to the very hearth!—my father being Sicilian and my mother (for all polemical intents and purposes) Neapolitan.  You may recall that in a previous blog I told the story of how in the face of the barbarizing invasions of North Italy Greco-Roman civilization retreated to its redoubt between the Kingdoms of Naples and of Sicily.  The island of Sicily has ever been the gateway into Italy of the exotica of yet swarthier civilizations—Greece, Arabia, North Africa—and the eclectic complexity of Sicilian recipes reflects that fact.  But as you know, I’m my mother’s son [read mamma’s boy] and favor the sweet, bucolic flavors of her Campanian hill-cooking.  So I must side with my mother against my father,  as usual, and credit the genius of eggplant alla Parmigiana, so called, to the genius of Neapolitan cooking—or, to use the trendy rebrand, of Campanian cooking.  Besides, since my mother doesn’t layer her eggplant, but instead makes nice little individual eggplant sandwiches, it would make no more sense to call it alla parmiciana than it does to call it alla Parmigiana 

But, then there’s still my culinary godmother to deal with, Marcella Hazan.  She has a recipe that is quintessentially Parmesan.  (BTW, I’ve come to love this adjective.  I used to contemn it, taking it to be an American mangling of ‘Parmigiana’, but fact is, it’s a real word of the Parma dialect, says Google Search.  Now, I think it important to distinguish between mangling and anglicizing:  to mispronounce a foreign sound in a mishap of a foreign accent is fatuous, but to mispronounce it on purpose in your native accent can be affectionate (or mocking, as need be), e.g., for an English speaker to say Firenze in an overweening Italian accent instead of saying “Florence” in their native English accent is fatuous, whereas the anglicized name "Florence" bespeaks a centuries-old affection of the English language for the Italian, not to mention the lovely adjective “Florentine.”  So I’ve decided that the adjective "Parmesan" (short for parmesano) rings with the pet-name endearment of other such age-old anglicizations as “Roman,” “Florentine,” or ‘Neapolitan.”  Ah, the power of the Google search!)

Where was I?  Oh yes, there's Marcella's eggplant alla Parmesana, so called by me.  In the first place, she uses her bovine Parmigiano-Reggiano in lieu of tangy Pecorino Romano, and dots it with wads of butter that melt into the grated cheese and ooze over the fried eggplant into the buttered pan.  Now that’s Parmesan (did you know that the nickname of Marcella’s native Bologna is La Grassa—the Fat Lady?)  Moreover, although the recipe makes use of the same chunky tomato sauce that southern recipes do, it’s hidden underneath the layers of eggplant, so that the pan speciously presents the buttery face of a northern dish in bianco.  Finally, it calls for thinly sliced eggplant layered in the Frankish fashion of a "terrine," calling to mind the barbarizing invasions of North Italy by the yet more intemperate northerners beyond the mountains (remember, oh my soul, there but for the grace of clime go I!).  [BTW, the quotation marks around "terrine" are not superfluous, but indicate rather that I always pronounce French words either with an overweening French accent, or else with a pronounced American accent, on purpose.]

I have intentionally diversified these two recipes, for variety’s sake.  “Art imitates nature,” wrote Aristotlenot her products, but her way of generating them:  she strives for variety and distinctness of form.  Good cooking distills flavors and textures, and cultivates contrariety and panoply.  I know that somewhere in your genome is buried a savage nostalgia for sitting out in the open around a cauldron, tossing in whatever the catch of the day might bring, and fishing your dinner out of the stewy amalgam, come what may, but you’ve come a long way since then, and you must resist regressive impulses to “just” throw things into your cooking pot or cross recipes in combinations as confused as they are convenient.  Being civilized takes time.  Make the time.

My mother’s eggplant parmigiana is heartier and tastier than Marcella’s, so I like it better as a main course and in winter.  Also, when I make her eggplant sandwiches for my version of Marcella’s version, the sauce goes in between, rather than on top, together with a slice of mozzarella and fresh basil.  As described earlier, these eggplant sandwiches get topped alla Parmesana with a mound of grated Parmigiano-Reggiano and curls of butterwhich two gifts of the cow melt into a topping nutty in both color and flavor.  The dish is more delicate than my mother’s, both in heft and flavor, so I prefer it as a starter, rather than a main dish, and in summer.  I also use fresh mozzarella, rather than dry, to further diversify its feel, and I tuck in the basil leaves, to further summerize it.

My mother’s version, on the other hand, is more delicate than the staple offering of red-sauce restaurants, so it delights my guests by surprising their expectations.  It’s hard for me to explain why it’s so much better than the standard fare, since there’s no ‘special’ ingredient.  Perhaps it’s in the proportion:  the integrity of the eggplant’s texture and flavor is better preserved by being in greater ratio to the cheese and sauce, since my mother sandwiches thin slices of mozzarella between thick slices of fried breaded eggplant and only tops with tomato sauce, instead of layering thin slices of fried eggplant with sauce and mozzarella.  If the standard fare lacks the happy proportion of my mother's, what can I say about that?  As Parmenides, first father of Western metaphysics, warns us, non-being can neither be thought nor spoken, not being, so Don't go there, he says, in ancient Greek.
Okay, enough with the stories, let's get the recipes.  To start with, in both recipes, mom’s and Marcella’s, I use the same tomato sauce, a special marinara sauce.  Why special?  Not because there’s anything special about marinara sauce.  On the contrary, it’s the simplest tomato sauce to make, and yet the most popular with Gentiles.  The story goes that it’s called marinara—sailors’ sauce—because sailors could make it quick and easy dockside.  Its appeal is in its frank simplicity and unselfconscious tangyness, and it would be a barbarous impulse for you to want to spice it up.  All you want to do is saute cloves of garlic in olive oil (tipping the pot to float them in the sizzling oil), until golden [not browned!], and add a can of pelati [whole peeled tomatoes imported from Italy—never not imported!], with an unstinting teaspoon of salt, and cook them down at a lively simmer, mashing them with your wooden spoon as you go, until  a chunky sauce comes to be, glistening to the eye and wafting of the nose. If you have fresh basil on hand, you may toss a few whole leaves in for the last five minutes of cooking—only to be fished out later, along with the garlic cloves, before mixing the sauce with pasta—but that’s it!  Don’t fool with simplicity.

When we make marinara, we use a generous amount of regular olive oil (maybe ¼ cup per large can of pelati), and not extra virgin, because we want the lighter, more transparent flavor of regular (you don’t want your sauce commandeered as yet another vehicle for the forward flavor of extra-virgin olive oil).  For the same reason, we use several whole garlic cloves, lightly crushed or scored, and fish them out at the end, for garlic enhancement that remains deferential to the featured tomato flavor (which is why those tomatoes better be good!) 

But I have a special version of marinara I make for this eggplant dish.  Because only discrete amounts of tomato sauce are used in this dish, so as not to overwhelm the eggplant’s flavors, and because the fried eggplant is already oily, I want a marinara sauce with more flavor and less oil than is the rule.  So I use small amounts of extra virgin olive oil and I chop the garlic fine for this special marinara, which as an exception only confirms the aforementioned rules.  [If I have leftovers, do I use it on pasta?  Well, of course.]

Garlic chopped fine doesn’t mean minced (i.e., mashed for amalgamation, in Frankish fashion).  Rather, first, I use the handle of my chef’s knife and my palm to lightly crack the garlic clove and loosen the peel, cut off each end, and slip off the peel.  Then I slice the clove lengthwise and lay the halves down on the flat side, slice the halves thickly a couple of times lengthwise, then crosswise finely, to create pieces broad enough to be visible to the eye but thin enough to go unnoticed by tongue or tooth.  Then I pour out a shallow pool of extra virgin olive oil to cover the bottom of a suitably sized pot, scrape the chopped garlic into the cold oil, turn the heat on to medium, and allow all to heat to a sizzle.  When I hear sizzling, I tip the pot to float the garlic, so that it will gild evenly all over.  As soon as the garlic turns golden [well short of browned!], I remove the pot from the heat to mix in the tomatoes, and return the pot to the heat once the tomato liquid arrests further coloring of the garlic.

The canned tomatoes I use are always Roma tomatoes, Italian imports [not just Italian-style], and always whole [not crushed or chopped].  I almost never use the liquid they’re packed in, whether watery or thick, because I hold it in suspicion (where would it come from, if not from tomatoes unworthy to be presented whole?).   If I’m feeling fastidious, I’ll even seed the tomatoes by slicing them in half on a plate and squeezing out the seeds in little rivulets of tomato juice, which I later strain back into the cooking pot.  Very roughly chopping the tomatoes, I generously salt them, add them to the pot, and cover the pot until they work up to a lively simmer.  Then I tip the lid to allow for evaporation, and sauce usually comes to be in 20 minutes; if the sauce thickens before it sweetens, I add more water to give it more time.  You know it’s sauce when it tastes good.  [Strange that the obvious often needs belaboring.]  If it seems tart rather than tangy, raw rather than pulpy, vegetal rather than fruity, it needs more cooking.  If it just tastes bland, it needs more oil, salt, or both.  If you didn’t use good tomatoes, do better next time.

Besides the same sauce, the two recipes have in common the prepping of the eggplant.  After peeling it, I slice it thickishly, into slices something more than ¼-inch but less than ½-inch (you can say 3/8-inch, if you like to). My mother tells me that the eggplant they had in Sacco was much smaller than what we have here in America, so that her mother would cut them in half lengthwise, to make one serving out of each.  I take this to be the origin of of my mother's lovely little sandwiches alla Saccataraa happy accident of penury.  It goes to show both how "art loves accident," as Aristotle says, and how poverty mates with resourcefulness.

I brine my eggplant slices (i.e., soak the slices in water as salty as the sea¼ cup salt to 1 qt. waterusing a plate to keep them under water) for as little as ½ hour or as much as a couple of hours.  I believe without proof of the fact that this brining leeches out any bitterness and also renders the slices less absorbent of oil during frying, by hydrating them.  I repeat, I have no proof of the fact, only this theory why.  [It appears you can have a reason why without a proven fact to go with it.]  When I’m ready to fry them, I dry them off by spinning them in a salad spinner, in small batches.  Sometimes I rinse them with fresh water before draining and spinning them dry.

It's when it comes to frying the eggplant slices that the two recipes first diverge.  For Marcella's eggplant parmigiana alla Parmesana (which name we now understand is not in fact redundant), I very quickly fry the eggplant slices plain (no flour, breadcrumbs, or egg), in nearly an inch of maximally hot peanut oil, until the bottom edges are gilded, which usually happens in under a minute, whereupon I turn them over to reveal their happily golden, bespeckled faces, and go on to gild the other side as well, in well under a minute (even as little as half a minute, if my oil is maximally hot).  I remove the slices to racks to cool (or else paper towels), and taste to see if they need salting on both sides, which they usually do.

In my mom's recipe, we bread the eggplant slices with seasoned bread crumbs, for which reason they must be fried in moderately hot oil, not maximally hot.  Now our use of seasoned bread crumbs may well be called alla Americana, being a practice more common in Brooklyn than in Italy, as far as I can tell.  My mother says that "back in the town" [referring in that way to Sacco, as though to a time and world of its own] they knew nothing of bread crumbs, but rather used to dip the eggplant in egg and then flour.  In Naples and Sicily, some dip it in egg, flour, and then egg again. I've heard tell of dipping it in egg and then grated cheese.  I've never tried these eggy variations, but I imagine the fried effect would be that of a fritter, and noticeably different from our crispy and savory crumb coat.  I feel sure that I prefer seasoned bread crumbs both to a flour and an egg finish, but  that's not a fact, just a moral certainty. 

Anyway, to do it my mother's Brooklyn way, beat a couple of eggs in a flat bowl with a pinch of salt and dollop of milk.  Then pour out seasoned breadcrumbs—preferably the 4C Seasoned Bread Crumbs—in a big mound onto a paper towel, together with some tablespoons of flour, using the corners of the paper towel to mix the flour into the breadcrumbs.  Dip an eggplant slice into the egg to wet both sides, let excess run off, and then place it on the mound of crumbs, using the towel corners to cover the top of the slice with crumbs; press the slice into the crumbs below; then turn it over, top again with crumbs, press again.  Set breaded slices aside in a single layer on a tray or paper towels, to dry off. 

They must be fried in moderately rather than maximally hot oil, so the crumbs don't burn. My mother does it in a broad skillet, in a pool of oil that comes halfway up the slices.  Marcella deep-fries hers in several inches of oil.  I do something in between, pouring out into a mini braising pan (pan with high sides) oil enough for the slices to float in, something like ½ inch of oil, and I fry only a few at a time.  Unlike my mother, I can fry the slices more quickly on a medium-high flame, because they cook fast enough afloat in oil not to burn, and fast enough that it’s not tedious to do only 2 or 3 at a time.  I always use peanut oil for hot frying, because olive oil smokes. 

The eggplant slices should of course sizzle as soon as they go into the oil, and will be ready to turn over in under a minute, as soon as their bottom edges gild.  The other side will fry even more quickly.  I want them golden, not browned.  As when breading them, I set aside the fried slices in a single layer, whether on a cooling rack or on paper towels, to keep them dry.  If the eggplant was fresh, and the brining went well, and the frying quick, the fried slices will turn out crisp rather than oily.  If they turn out oily, it is not a bust—just pat with paper towels to soak up excess oil as best you can.  Also, you must taste them and correct for salt, salting both sides, if necessary.  You might think the brine would make them salty enough, but that's often not true.  In fact, if you want to play it safe, you should rinse them with fresh water after brining, and salt them after frying.

Match up eggplant slices into pairs for sandwiching slices of mozzarella.  For my mother's recipe, I use the low-moisture kind meant for cooking (e.g., Polly-O or Sorrento brands), but for Marcella's I use fresh mozzarella (although it sheds liquid during the baking).  I've never tried Campania's famous mozzarella di bufala [too pricey!], but I do have stories about it for you.  Turns out no one knows how those water buffalo got to Campania.  One story has it that the Goths brought them with them over the  Alps.  Another says that Arabs brought them to Sicily and Sicilians brought them to Campania.  A third story says they are indigenous to Campania.  I guess that covers all the possibilities, eh?  I think we can supersede any such dispute about facts by looking at the issue metaphysically:  if everything in nature tends to its natural place; and if it was only in Campania that the manifest desire of buffalo milk to become mozzarella has best been realized [with higher yield, by the way, than from cow milklooking at the issue economically], then Campania is the place as native to its buffala as 'up' is to fire (even if it came from Sicily) and 'down' is to a rolling stone (even if it came from the Goths).  For a thing to flourish, it needs to find its way to its natural place.  To find the right place for a thing, you need to look not to the facts of history, but to the longings of its nature.

But I digress. I'm supposed to be slicing mozzarella for my mom's breaded eggplant sandwiches.  I slice the mozzarella into slices a bit less than half the thickness of the eggplant slices, and sandwich the slices between the eggplant slices, to cover without overhang.  Also tuck in several big crumbs of Pecorino Romano, which you can produce by fork-whittling your grating chunk.  Spread a little sauce all over the bottom of the baking pan, and lay out the sandwiches.  Then top each sandwich with a generous spoonful of sauce, but not running over.  Spinkle the mounds of sauce generously with grated Pecorino Romano.  Bake in a moderate oven, say 325-350 degrees, until the mozzarella has melted and starts to ooze out, say 20-30 minutes.  My mother covers the baking pan very lightly with aluminum foil, which she removes in the last 5-10 minutes, but I find the foil unnecessary.

When I do my own version of Marcella’s, I fry plain eggplant slices over highest heat, as I've said.  When I make my eggplant sandwiches, I use fresh mozzarella (e.g. Galbani brand), for a difference from my mother’s version, although the fresh kind sheds a good deal of liquid into the baking pan, which seems like a very bad thing, except that it still tastes good, but I still use a broader pan to allow for space between the eggplant sandwiches (and I’d still love to figure out how to forestall its happening altogether).  Also, I stir many basil leaves into the sauce, because I’m too lazy to tuck them into each sandwich one by one, which seems ridiculously lax of me, does it not, after all the trouble I’m already taking with the dish?  We all have our little rebellions, do we not, even against ourselves?

I sandwich between each set of these plain-fried eggplant slices:  a slice of fresh mozzarella, big crumbs of Parmigiano-Reggiano, a big spoonful of sauce, and a basil leaf.  These sandwiches I lay out in a spacious, well-buttered pan.  I freshly grate a big mound of Parmigiano-Reggiano onto each sandwich, and top each such mound with several fat curls of butter.  All this goes into a not too hot oven, say 300-325 degrees,  because the fresh mozzarella melts faster than the dry, say in 15-20 minutes.  The watery liquid it sheds into the pan is dismaying, but harmless—I don’t even try to drain it before removing the sandwiches with a slotted spatula onto the serving platter, which can be seasonally decorated with fresh basil leaves.  I often also serve it with a boat of the special tomato sauce, for eaters who like tastiness even better than subtlety.

I know that by now I don’t need to tell you that you need crusty bread with it, wherever it may come from.

P.S.  Do I ever make a sandwich with it?  No.  The happy proportion to bread is achieved by eating the eggplant with a fork in one hand and a piece of bread in the other.  

P.P.S.  Do I need to tell you to take bites of the bread in between?

 *


Eggplant alla Napolitana  

Peel and slice eggplant into slices shy of a half-inch; soak in brine (1/4C. salt to 1qt. water) for an hour; drain, rinse, and dry.
Bread eggplant slices by dipping first in eggs beaten with a dash of salt and dollop of milk, and then in seasoned breadcrumbs mixed with some flour.  Sizzle to golden in a half-inch of moderately hot oil to golden.  Salt both sides to tasty.
*  Make eggplant sandwiches with thin slices of mozzarella and big crumbs of Pecorino Romano.  Lay the sandwiches out in a pan smeared with marinara sauce, and top each sandwich with a generous spoonful of the sauce, sprinkling each mound of sauce with grated Pecorino Romano.
*  Bake in a moderate oven (325-350) until mozzarella melts (20-30 minutes). Eat with crusty Italian bread, needless to say.

*

Eggplant alla Parmesana  
Peel and slice eggplant into slices shy of a half-inch; soak in brine (1/4C. salt to 1qt. water) for an hour; drain, rinse, and dry.
Deep fry eggplant slices in maximally hot oil to golden 'n gilded.  Salt both sides to tasty. 
*  Make eggplant sandwiches with thin slices of fresh mozzarella, big crumbs of Parmigiano-Reggiano, a generous spoonful of marinara sauce, and a basil leaf.  
Lay the sandwiches out in a broad and well-buttered pan, and top each sandwich first with a mound of grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and then a few big curls of butter.
*  Bake in a low oven (300-325) until mozzarella melts (15-20 minutes). Remove sandwiches with slotted spoon to platter decorated with fresh basil leaves.  Serve with crusty bread.