I packed a wedge of Parmigiano-Reggiano for our trip to the beach.
There. I admit it. And no, it wasn’t just tucked between the swim suits and sunscreen, but had plenty of company in a big plastic bin with other pantry “essentials” like pasta, peanut butter, bread, fresh mozzarella, chickpeas, rice, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and some Jersey Fresh produce from Cherry Grove Organic Farm.
When it comes to vacation, the things to which I most look forward are 1) having time to connect with the family and 2) cook with the kids. Most of the meals we plan are quick and easy so that, after a day on the beach, we can get back out and enjoy the boardwalk before dropping in to bed.
I also have a couple of menu options in my hip pocket for the days that aren’t so sunny, when rain drives everyone back inside. So when the clouds rolled in this year, daughter 1 and I set to work on an eggplant Parmesan while my husband put daughter 2 down for a nap.
The ingredient list is nice and simple so this recipe is accommodated to vacation-house cooking. You don’t need any fancy equipment either so you should be able to make this in even the most sparsely-outfitted kitchen (which, thankfully, ours was not…making vacation even more enjoyable for me).
We cut a few corners by packing a good jar of marinara sauce but you can always make your own if you have the ingredients and even more time on your hands. We, it turns out, were able to enjoy a good portion of the day at the beach until heavy clouds sent us home in the early afternoon. If you wake up and it’s pouring, go for it and make a marinara of your own, like this one from The Food Network’s Alex Guarnaschelli.
In addition to making good use of the ingredients we brought with us, this recipe calls for baking the breaded eggplant instead of frying it before assembling the eggplant Parmesan. It’s healthier that way, and made me feel a little less guilty about eating the sour cream-drizzled shrimp tacos and french fries from the fish shack for lunch. Every vacation calls for some food excess, but no reason not to rein it in a little when possible.
With several uninterrupted hours, a gin and tonic for mom, and an apple juice for daughter 1, here’s what we were able to accomplish.
Baked Eggplant Parmesan
2 large eggplants
2 teaspoons salt
3/4 cup all-purpose flour, seasoned with 1/2 teaspoon salt and several grinds of fresh pepper
4 slices stale bread, whizzed in a blender or food processor into bread crumbs — about 1 cup (we used the ends of 2 loaves of sandwich bread, lightly toasted, but you could use prepared bread crumbs or any good, dried-out bread)
1 tablespoon olive oil, used for oiling baking pans
1 1/4 cups grated Parmesan cheese
2 cups grated mozzarella cheese (we had those small, fresh mozzarella balls, which I diced up instead of grating)
24 ounce jar marinara sauce
5-6 basil leaves, cut into a chiffonade, for serving
Cooked linguine or spaghetti, for serving
Cut eggplant into 1/3-inch rounds, salt slices lightly, and place in a colander to drain for half an hour.
While eggplant is draining, set up your “dredging station.” Place seasoned flour in one medium shallow bowl, the beaten eggs in a second medium shallow bowl, and the bread crumbs and 1/4 cup of the grated Parmesan in a third medium shallow bowl. You may also wish to season your breadcrumbs with minced parsley or oregano (which I would have if I had additional fresh herbs on hand).
Lightly oil two baking sheets with the olive oil and set aside.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
After the eggplants have released some of their moisture, pat them dry with a clean dish towel or paper towels. You’re now ready to dredge, and this is the part of the recipe that had daughter 1 saying she was “a machine” when it came to coating eggplants in flour. Starting with the flour, coat an eggplant slice and knock off any excess against the edge of the bowl. Next, dip the eggplant slice into the beaten egg, allowing excess to drip off (the flour will help the egg adhere). Finally, coat the eggplant slice in the breadcrumb/Parmesan mixture, making sure the breadcrumbs fully cover the eggplant. Place the coated eggplant slice on the oiled baking sheet and repeat with remaining eggplant slices.
Bake the eggplant slices for approximately 30-40 minutes, until the bottoms are lightly browned. Remove from oven, flip the eggplant slices, and place the baking sheets back in the 375-degree oven for another 30 minutes until the second side is equally browned and crunchy. Remove from oven and increase the oven temperature to 400 degrees.
Mix the remaining 1 cup of grated Parmesan with the grated mozzarella.
To assemble the eggplant Parmesan, begin by spreading 1/2 cup marinara sauce on the bottom of a 9″ x 13″ baking pan — our beach house had a nice Pyrex one handy. Arrange the eggplant slices in a single layer over the sauce (daughter 1 did a great job), spread with another layer of sauce, and sprinkle with half of the Parmesan/mozzarella mixture (daughter 2, now up from her nap, did the cheese sprinkling…and a little cheese nibbling). Make another layer, starting with the eggplant, then the remaining sauce, and finally the remaining Parmesan/mozzarella mixture.
Place the assembled eggplant Parmesan into the 400-degree oven and bake until the cheese melts and the sauce bubbles — 20-30 minutes. Remove from the oven and allow to rest for at least 10 minutes.
Serve over cooked pasta with a sprinkle of basil chiffonade, or on a split crusty roll if an eggplant parm sandwich is more your style. Don’t forget to tuck in a couple of basil leaves for a little extra flavor hit.
Kid rating: Five stars for cooking participation, two-and-a-half stars for consumption. Daughter 1 loved getting into the kitchen with me and was very proud of the dish. She tasted a cooked eggplant round as we were assembling the Parmesan and gave it two thumbs up. But both girls vastly preferred the pasta to the eggplant once it was served. They both tried the dish, and I have faith that they will eat a little more when it comes time for leftovers.
Parent rating: Four-and-a-half stars. My husband was a little skeptical about baking the eggplant vs. frying, but was pretty impressed with the finished dish. We both added liberal grinds of fresh pepper, and probably would have been pushing five stars if we’d used more fresh herbs in the preparation. All in all, a keeper.