Note from Naomi: This is a guest post from one of my favorite chefs, authors and mentors–my grandmother, Suzanne Loebl. Her most recent book (her 14th!), America’s Medicis, was published by Harper Collins last year and reviewed by The Washington Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Economist. Check out her blog, Branching: Thoughts of an Ever-Curious Author, where she talks about writing, art, food and life. Thanks for the guest post, Nana!
In 1971, when she was seventeen years old, my daughter Judy entered her freshman year at Princeton University. My husband and I drove an excited and somewhat nervous Judy to campus and settled her in her dorm room. Ernest and I were a bit sad realizing the relationship with our daughter was about to enter a radically new phase. We were pleased to learn that freshmen and their parents were invited to a luscious roast beef feast. Judy, however, made it clear that she wanted us to depart without dinner. Being well-brought-up parents, we left on an empty stomach, puzzled and perhaps a bit hurt.
We found out later that the reason for our boot was that Judy had decided to start her new life by being a vegetarian. It was a mild, healthy protest, much better than any other she could have chosen. I learned to cook a variety of vegetarian dishes and, being a writer and an enthusiastic cook, resolved to write a vegetarian cookbook once she had been a vegetarian half her life. As they say: the way to hell is paved with good intentions, and I never did write that cookbook. I am so glad that Judy’s daughter Naomi and her friend Ora (and others) are now writing The Big Ceci, so that I can share some of my recipes with the world at large. Of course most of my recipes are not entirely new, but variations of what is already out there.
Positive and negative caveats: I am a strong believer in making a cook’s life as easy as possible. I take shortcuts whenever I can. I am also an instinctive cook, so my recipes are often a bit vague.
2 large Japanese eggplants
1 large or 2 medium onions
4 cloves garlic
1/4 cup olive oil
2 (28-ounce) cans good quality diced tomatoes
1 large can tomato paste
1 heaping tablespoon sugar
Oregano, salt and pepper to taste
1 pound best mozzarella you can find
Grated parmesan or pecorino romano
Dice 1 large or 2 medium onions and mince 4 cloves garlic. Sauté in ¼ cup olive oil for about 7 minutes, or until translucent. Add 2 large cans good quality diced tomatoes and 1 large can of tomato paste. Add 1 heaping tablespoon of sugar, oregano if available, and season to taste with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring to prevent burning, for 5 to 10 minutes.
I love eggplant, probably because it was not available in my northern European childhood home. Use 2 large (or corresponding amount of) Japanese eggplants. (Tip: Use good looking eggplants, selecting those that, comparatively speaking, feel lightest; they have the least amount of water.) Slice crosswise into ½-inch to 1-inch slices.
Most traditional recipes start either by frying the eggplant slices in oil or by breading them. For a healthier version, I start out by steaming the eggplant slices. My preferred method is the microwave. Spread out the eggplant slices, as a single or double layer, in a large microwave-proof rectangular dish. Salt lightly, add ¼ cup water, cover loosely and microwave until soft (8-10 minutes, depending on your microwave.) Drain. You may have to do this step in batches.
If you prefer to forego the microwave, you can pre-bake the eggplant slices instead. Just preheat the oven to 400 degrees, arrange the eggplant slices on a lightly oiled baking sheet, and bake for 12-15 minutes, or until soft (you don’t need them all the way done, since they will finish baking in the next step).
I use one pound of the best available mozzarella, which I slice. Other cheeses—sliced or shredded—will do as well.
Assembly and Baking
Lightly oil rectangular pan (the one used to pre-cook the eggplant will do fine) or casserole dish. Cover bottom with one layer of eggplant, top with some cheese and then cover with some tomato sauce. Repeat, until you used all the eggplant, ending with a layer of tomato sauce. Bake in conventional oven at 350 degrees (you will have to lower the temperature if you pre-baked the eggplant) for 40-45 minutes, or until tomato sauce is bubbling and cheese is melted. (Optional: remove from oven at 35 minutes, sprinkle a handful of grated parmesan over the top, and return to oven to finish baking for 5-10 more minutes.) Serve with grated parmesan or pecorino romano, and potatoes or pasta.
1. This is a fail-safe recipe.
2. Most likely you will be left with some tomato sauce. It freezes well. As a special treat, poach some eggs in the leftover sauce.
3. Prior to baking, the assembled eggplant parmigiana freezes well. You may wish to increase recipe and freeze for another meal.