|The Chef Is In: Aubergenius|
|May 27, 2005|
DAMN you, eggplant!
Okay, here's the problem. I can't seem to get an eggplant parmigiana to turn out. I mean, it's edible, technically, but I can't seem to find the happy cooking-time medium -- if I short-cook it, the spices stay snappy, but the eggplant itself is still all tough and tastes like shoe leather. If I slow-cook it, the eggplant is happy and squishy, but the sauce is all bleh after so much time in the oven -- and I'm not joking around with the garlic and basil, either.
What temperature should I use? Foil on the top or no? Salt the slices or no? Help!
Age of Vegiquarius
Note: I ascertained from Age of Vegiquarius what exactly her cooking process was. This was the response.
Spray pan with Pam
Lay 'plant slices in pan, salt slices
Pour jarred Barilla plain marinara over top
Fresh basil leaves
Umpteen cloves of garlic, diced in big chunks
Layer of black pepper
Layer of provolone
Little more sauce on top
Dear Aged Veg,
I have a feeling that your problem is all in the salt and when you're using it. Eggplant is a tricky berry and must be treated with care. It's not the easiest thing to prepare, but you should be okay if you follow one simple process: salt, drain, rinse.
Eggplant is very porous and once sliced, it will act like weird little sponge, sucking up both fat and liquid in prodigious amounts. Not only are they weird little sponges, but eggplants are also full of water. That water needs to be pulled out before cooking or you're going to get a soggy, sometimes even bitter, mess. This is one reason why your eggplant is turning to mush after being baked. Instead of being seasoned, the slices are actually sucking in the salt you're sprinkling on top of them pre-Barilla dosing. After the salt is sucked in, the natural water in the eggplant is getting pushed out and that water has no where to go but in your dish. Soggy nastiness ensues.
Here's what you do: place your eggplant slices in a single layer either on a rack over the sink or in a colander in the sink. Salt the slices with about 1 teaspoon salt, dividing evenly over all the slices. Wait 10-15 minutes. Flip the slices. Salt the other side with the same amount of salt and let the slices drain for 30-60 minutes. The longer you let them drain, the more interfering liquid you'll get rid of. That's a good thing. After the purging process is complete, rinse the slices and squeeze out the excess water by hand. Believe me, they're tough little suckers, they can handle this. Blot the slices with paper towels to wick off any leftover water.
Proceed with your recipe and bake in a pre-heated 375° oven for 35-40 minutes.
A word on cooking time and temperatures -- every oven is different and most have hot and cold spots. If you think that your oven temp is at all wonky, invest a few bucks in an oven thermometer. That's the only way to be 100% certain you're actually cooking at the correct heat level.
As a bonus, I'm also going to give you the following advice. Traditionally, Eggplant Parmigiana is made by dipping the slices in beaten egg and then dredging (dragging) them through seasoned breadcrumbs. The prepared slices are then sautéed or fried before adding them to the bake. Other less fussy recipes might leave out the breadcrumbs but not the sautéeing. I have a deeply-held personal belief that eggplant benefits from some level of cooking before you try to bake them with sauce. One reason for this belief is that, as I said above, eggplant is a damn difficult berry, and sautéeing, frying, or even broiling it improves its texture. Another reason is that pre-cooking helps to build flavors in your finished dish.
So, if you feel like branching out from your original recipe, I can suggest two ways of pre-cooking the eggplant after the salt purge.
1. Lightly rub both sides of the slices with olive oil (or spray with cooking spray if you prefer). For one average-sized eggplant, you won't need more than 1 tablespoon of oil.
2. Place the slices on a baking sheet and slide them under your broiler until they get golden, about 3 minutes. Use tongs to turn the slices over and repeat the broiling process.
3. Follow your recipe as before.
1. Warm 2 tablespoons olive oil in a skillet over medium-high heat.
2. Sauté the eggplant slices until golden-brown on each side, about 4-5 minutes. If you don't have a pan large enough to fit all the slices in a single layer at once, sauté in batches.
I will also tell you that to get the most flavor out of garlic, it is best to sauté it in a little olive oil before adding it to the sauce.