I would've sworn I posted this recipe a long while ago -- but alas, I have not.
Eggplant parm is one of those composed dishes that I adore. It takes a lot of work to assemble -- make no mistake. So this is something to reserve for a Sunday afternoon.
Make a few pans, and freeze what you're not going to use. It takes no more effort to make two pans of parm as it does one.
Eggplant parm has a thousand variations, and every cook makes it slightly differently, and swears by his own recipe. This recipe recalls the one that my grandmother Catherine would make. I remember her making it for our annual family picnics in Gladwyne Park.
Here's what makes my eggplant parm mine:
• I always peel my eggplant. Many cooks do not.
• After slicing the eggplant, I salt it generously, sit it on paper towels, and let it 'weep' for about an hour, then blot with dry paper towels. Not only does this soften the eggplant, but it seasons it well; there's nothing worse than bland parm. Some of the TV chefs insist this removes "bitterness," but I'm not fully convinced of that. Besides, the bit of bitterness inherent in eggplant gives it its unique and appealing flavor.
• I don't coat the eggplant with bread crumbs. I dredge in flour, then dip in egg, then fry quickly.
• I use a simple marinara sauce -- oil, garlic, tomato. No need for anything more. Yes, you can use a jarred sauce if you'd like. I promise not to tell.
• I love using fontina cheese in this. I get sliced fontina at Trader Joe's (it's the only place I've every found it). It's got great flavor, is creamy, and melts well. I typically don't use mozzarella. If you can't find fontina, deli provolone works well.
• And despite the fact that this is called "parmigiana," I also use pecorino romano cheese. Parmigiana is nuttier and less sharp in character, so feel free to use it if you'd like. I prefer the sharpness of the pecorino.
• I use disposable "half-size" foil baking/steam table pans (buy them anywhere). (Typical dimension is 12 3/4" x 10 3/8" x 2 9/16".) They're deeper (~ 2.5") than any ceramic baking dish I own -- and I own a LOT of ceramic baking dishes -- and when you've finished enjoying the parm, the pan gets tossed.
• I typically use a double foil pan. Adds sturdiness to the pan, and minimizes the likelihood of pinhole leaks.
Assembling a parm requires a bit of operational organization. First you have to make the sauce (if you're making your own). You can make the sauce days in advance, or use jarred.
Then you have to fry the eggplant, and set that aside. Then line up your cheeses and pans. The start the assembly operation. Consider this an SOP.
Slice the eggplant. You'll need at least two large eggplant to make a couple pans of parm. Use your judgment. If you have more than you need, serve what's left as a side dish at dinner.
Arrange the slices on a paper towel-lined baking sheet. Salt liberally on both sides. Cover with more paper towels. Let sit an hour or so. The eggplant will surrender a great deal of liquid. Pat dry.
Set up your assembly line -- a large bowl with all-purpose flour, and another with beaten eggs. Probably no need to season either of these, as the eggplant are well seasoned already.
Dredge the slices in the flour, and then dip into the egg, then right into hot oil, until beautifully golden.
Drain on paper towels. Set aside. Again, this is something you can do hours before, and honestly, this is the most onerous of the tasks in making eggplant parm.
Start the assembly. Spray a deep foil pan with release spray. Put a bit of sauce in the bottom, and start lining up the fried eggplant.
Continue laying in the slices, slightly overlapping, until you have the first layer.
Cover with sauce. Pay no attention to that jar of sauce you see in the background that I could not crop out of the photo.
Cover with sliced fontina. If you cannot get your hands on fontina, deli-style provolone works well. Again, I don't use mozzarella. I love mozzarella, but I find it stringy and bland in the layers.
Repeat two more times. In these deep foil pans, you should have enough depth for three layers.
After the top layer, strew shredded mozzarella on top. This is the only place I'd used mozzarella, largely because it will be browned when in the oven.
If you've just assembled the parm, and are ready to pop it into the over, do so. First, cover it, ideally with non-stick aluminum foil. ( Reynolds Non-Stick Foil. Genius product!) Place it on a baking sheet -- it almost certainly will bubble over -- and into a 325°F oven for about 45 minutes. It should be fully warmed through. Remove the foil cover, raise the oven to 375°F, and let the top brown, about 15 minutes.
You MUST let this sit a good 20 minutes or more before you try cutting into it. This will stay adequately warm for a long time, so don't fret that it will get cold.
If you happen to have that second pan you made which you covered and froze, and want to cook that, then let it thaw fully before trying to bake it. Even thawed, it will be cool. Just as above, cover with non-stick foil, and bake at 325°F. But you're likely going to have to bake this substantially longer. Parm is dense, and it takes a long time for heat to penetrate, especially a pan of it that's been frozen. Be patient. Use a quick-read thermometer, and poke it into the middle and see what the temp is after it's been in the oven for an hour. You'll want it to be at least 140°F, and probably as high at 160°F before you remove the foil to brown the top. This seems like it takes forever, and that's because it does.