Dicing cloves of spicy garlic or watching vegetables brown and sweeten as they sauté in olive oil keeps me calm, but I didn’t always know this. Honestly, this may not have always been true. Somewhere along the way, cooking became more than just a way to soothe my inner chocolate beast.
Eight years ago, I went to France where, even though I was staying in somebody’s house, I did very little cooking. At that time, I wasn’t bothered knowing eventually I would make it back to my kitchen. Instead, at the end, I became frantic about traveling with bottles of wine. I also proceeded to become insufferably fussy about eggplant parmesan after ordering it at a tiny Italian restaurant my last night in Paris. Yes, really last night in France we ate Italian. The memory of this meal is strong, but the taste has faded enough that all I really remember is a very light dish made with thin strips of eggplant.
A few years back, I spent two weeks with a family friend, Paige, at another friend, Mary’s, house in California. A lot of great food was consumed during those two weeks, once again none of it cooked by me. By the end, I was becoming quite punchy. Instead of cooking, I switched to waking up early in order to spend a few minutes lying in bed, but the result wasn’t the same – not a morning person. While I ate food at Tra Vigne, Stacey’s Café and many other good restaurants some of the most memorable meals were eaten in Mary’s house prepared by her. One of the best was this eggplant parmesan made twice during that two-week time.
Once home from France I started ordering this dish out and making different recipes, yet none seemed right. For whatever reason, the one I had in California immediately became a second favorite. Once again, shortly after arriving home I set about recreating this dish with much better results.
Eggplant Pesto Parmesan
Large bunch basil
¼ cup walnuts or toasted pine nuts
2-3 cloves garlic
1-2 cups marinara
8 oounces mozzarella, shredded, cut into thin slices or small cubes
¼ cup parmigiano, shredded
Pesto is something ridiculously easy to make and expensive to buy. All recipes are very similar, but this is based on my current favorite found in The Mediterranean Vegan Kitchen.
In food processor, chop garlic. Then basil. Then nuts. Add olive oil with motor running until it becomes well combined but before olive oil starts pooling in the bottom of the bowl.
Preheat oven to 375°F.
Cut off top and bottom of eggplant. Slice into ½” rounds. Alternatively, cut in half lengthwise and then into ¼” slices. Place in colander and sprinkle with salt, leave to drain for about 30 minutes.
Rinse and pat dry eggplant. Arrange in single layer on baking sheet. Brush both sides with a little olive oil. Bake until slightly softened and browning, turning once. Depending on thickness of the eggplant anywhere from 5-15 minutes. Remove from oven.
Spread a couple small spoonfuls of marinara into bottom of baking dish. Usually, one large eggplant fills an 8” square dish; a small eggplant will fill a loaf pan size. Add one layer of eggplant. Top each round or slice with a couple teaspoons of pesto, a couple large spoonfuls of marinara, then sprinkle with cheese. Add another layer of eggplant. Add in equal amounts of pesto, marinara and cheese. Repeat with remaining eggplant. The last of the cheese should be the last layer.
Bake about 45 minutes until the cheese starts browning and the sauce is bubbling around the edges.
A couple notes: First, I often bread the eggplant before baking, but didn’t this last time. If you want to it’s a very easy step to add. After salting eggplant, dredge in beaten egg and then in breadcrumbs mixed with dried Italian herbs. Then bake and follow the rest of the recipe. Second, this is one time I will use a jarred pasta sauce. I choose a simple all-natural one such as olive oil and garlic. If you prefer to make your own, this is also very simple. A very basic recipe: Sauté garlic and onion. Add in finely diced tomatoes, olive oil, and seasoning (such as red pepper flakes or basil). Cover and simmer for about 30 minutes.