Let me preface this post with making it clear that, although I adore Italian culture, dream of traveling to Rome and meandering through the canals of Venice, and am utterly obsessed with their food, I (much to my dismay) am not Italian.
There. I said it.
There was a time when I thought I was Italian. My grandfather was Italian, and Italian food has always been a source of comfort for me, but I vividly remember the day I learned that I am not Italiana – after a family dinner at (yup, you guessed it) an Italian restaurant, I made a comment that I was so happy that we’re Italian – we have the best food, and everyone is so loud and happy! That’s when my seven-year-old boot-shaped bubble was popped – we’re not Italian, but Grandpa is.
This was also the night I learned about step parents.
To be honest, I was way more crushed about not being Italian than I was to learn that Grandpa Tom was not blood related.
Still, my love of Italian food and culture never waned. Every year for my birthday, I still have homemade lasagna, I have learned to make a mean alfredo sauce, and I aspire to one day create gorgeously crisp cannoli.
In my pursuit of cooking my way into Italian citizenry, I have also made eggplant parmesan one of my staple meals. Not only is it delicious and filling, but it is deceivingly simple. It is also a great dish year-round – the fried cheesy goodness is a comfort when served with pasta during winter months, yet this veggie meal, with its fresh basil, can also feel fresh and bright during warmer months.
Depending on the time of year and produce availability, the sauce can be made from scratch or with fresh tomatoes. Because I live in California, tomatoes are nearly always in season, but sometimes the time or energy for making sauce from scratch just doesn’t exist, and there is no shame in that… you better believe I opt for the jar of pre-made sauce pretty often myself, and I often use canned tomatoes to make this whole process a little quicker.
That being said, I’m feeling a little extra today and decided to go for it. Making sauce from scratch doesn’t take too much extra effort, so here it goes. Pour yourself a little vino rosso Italiano, and let’s get cooking!
The first step is choosing your tomatoes. I’ve chosen a variety of tomatoes to make this sauce with, and I feel it depends on my I’m going for. If I want a bright and light sauce, I might choose something with a higher water content; however if I want a deeper and richer sauce, I’ll choose a Roma or other plum fruit. Today I want to strike a balance in between – I want a sauce that has depth, but isn’t too rich (it’s June as I write this, and I want the meal to feel a little lighter), so I’m going with a 50/50 mix of Roma and On The Vine tomatoes.
Step one is to get your tomatoes naked.
When I was much younger, my mind boggled at the thought of peeling tomatoes – BUT HOW?!?! I thought. Mom to the rescue. She showed me something that I though was magic, and if you’ve never peeled tomatoes before, you will too.
Wash and score the tomatoes (don’t cut too deep!) and place them in a pot to boil. Once they boil for a few minutes, pull them off the stove and into cold water. Viola! They will shed their skin so quickly your head will spin.
While the tomatoes are boiling, get the onions and garlic going. Cook the onion until they become translucent, and then throw in the garlic until it is nice and aromatic – only about one to two minutes (be careful not to overcook or brown the garlic).
Next, roughly dice your newly nude tomatoes and throw them (juice, seeds, and all) into the pot. Toss the onion and garlic in with it, as well as the remaining ingredients. Bring everything to a boil and, if you want a less chunky sauce that doesn’t quite resemble bruschetta, smash to the desired consistency with a potato masher. reduce the heat to simmer uncovered for about 60-80 minutes, or until most of the juice is absorbed.
A few minutes before the sauce is ready to be served, wash, dry and roughly chop the basil and toss it in and stir.
Now for something as easy-peasy and impressive to serve your sauce on…
I’m not kidding when I tell you this eggplant parm is easy. It’s so easy, in fact, that I cut out the casserole part. Sometimes I just don’t want a casserole… often times that is when it is 87 degrees out and I remember that I don’t have central air in my upstairs apartment, so I don’t want to bake something for 45 minutes. Or when I remember how very delicious the outside crisp of eggplant parmigiana is when it isn’t encased in casserole.
Start by selecting eggplants that is firm… smushy spots generally mean bruising. Slice your veg hasselback style and then absorb the excess moisture.
Because only so many pieces will pit in the frying pan at once and I want to maintain a crispy coating, I line a baking sheet with a wire rack over it and place it in the oven. I keep the oven at a low 250 degrees Fahrenheit so the eggplant won’t dry out, but will stay warm and crispy while I continue frying.
Dip in egg, then in breadcrumbs, and then fry for about 2-3 minutes on each side until the eggplants pieces are beautifully golden and crispy.
Top with heaps of mozzarella and let the cheese melt. Nestle this crispy, cheesy, veggie goodness on top of a pasta of your choice, pour over tomato basil sauce, pour a(nother) glass of vino, and enjoy!It’s a little bit of work, but I love this meal. It’s easy for two for a celebrating a new job meal, and great for a crowd for a party… I’ve served this for both, and have received nothing but compliments, especially on the sauce.
The beauty of this sauce is that it is so simple that it can be dressed up or down in any way you want. Sometimes I’ll add some red chili flakes for a little heat. Sometimes I add more or less basil or garlic. It’s a very simple and basic recipe, so play with it! Don’t be afraid to add or subtract whatever will make this sauce what you need it to be. And let me know in the comments if you try either of these recipes and how they worked out for you.