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Posted at 7:00 AM ET, 12/20/2010

Project Downscale: Eggplant Parmigiana

By Joe Yonan

To make baby Parm, you need baby eggplant. (iStockphoto)

It's not exactly the season for eggplant Parm (or, as they would say in my former stomping grounds of Boston, "pahm"). As Marcella Hazan writes in "Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking," "No dish has ever been devised that tastes more satisfyingly of summer." That's because of the eggplant, of course, but also because of the fresh basil. Neither of them are jumping off local farm trucks right about now.

But when blogger Evan Halperin of New York sent me the idea as something Project Downscale-worthy, I couldn't resist. That's because it's such a classic family dish and, in Boston, anyway, it's not exactly connected to the seasons. When you want to feed a horde something hearty (like when it's cold outside), you slice, grate and salt, you dredge, dip and fry, you layer, you bake, and everybody eats. And maybe groans a little.

Diet food, this is not. Nor is it single-serving food. At least not traditionally.

Then again, nailing down the traditions surrounding eggplant Parm -- its provenance, even the origin of the name -- has long been a little murky, as Clifford Wright explains. (Is "Parmigiana" a reference to the cheese or the region, or does it derive from a mispronunciation just as, well, pronounced as that New England pahm?)

Recipe Included

The hardest thing, frankly, about making it for one is finding a small enough eggplant. Halperin has already been down this road, choosing a smaller vegetable when he downsized a 4-serving recipe from Mario Batali into something more appropriate for him and his wife, a vegetarian. But he challenged me to take it down even more drastically, and for that I'd need to find not just a small eggplant, but a baby. I love those shiny black Italian baby eggplants that are so ubiquitous in farmers markets in high season (along with other small vegetables perfect for the solo cook).

No luck at Whole Foods on P Street, where the only eggplants have been those behemoths that could make pan after pan of Parm. Ditto at Safeway on 17th. I started calling around; the Harris Teeter in Adams Morgan reported the same wait-for-the-warehouse-delivery that Whole Foods cited. Finally, the Giant in Columbia Heights came through, with eggplants at just the right size (about 8 ounces apiece). But, annoyingly, they were individually wrapped in plastic. I put all thoughts of carbon footprints aside and bought a couple.

The other obstacle this time of year, naturally, is that basil. Whole Foods and some other stores sell live herb plants by Shenandoah Growers that I used to good effect when my community garden plot wasn't yet quite up to speed, and after the basil bolted. But carrying such a thing for 10 or 15 minutes in the 20-degree cold on my walk home showed me how fragile these plants are. Once I got home, in fact, the thing shuddered, sighed and pretty much gave up the ghost on my countertop -- but not before I snipped off enough leaves for the Parm.

Batali's recipe is a smart way to start, because rather than layer the entire bottom of a dish with eggplant slices, then spread sauce/cheese/basil over them and layer again, he basically calls for making eggplant napoleons. Each stack is separate, which means that, of course, you can just make fewer stacks for fewer (and fewer, and fewer) people. He also doesn't bread and fry the eggplant first, but instead roasts it before layering and baking. (Another decent starting place, if you want to play around with your own downscaling project, would be Andreas Viestad's nice and light version.)

blog-eggplant-cheese.jpg Parmigiano-Reggiano rinds are just $7.99 a pound, less than half the price of the bigger chunks. (Joe Yonan/The Washington Post)

Batali and many other cooks (Hazan included) call for salting the eggplant slices first, a technique that supposedly helps rid the vegetable of bitterness. I don't usually do it because I like the taste of eggplant just the way it is -- and because some experts think salting doesn't do squat for the taste, anyway. The only other tweaks I made were to brush the eggplant with oil rather than drizzle it into the pan, in order to mitigate the oil absorption, and to cut back on the cheese. I figured on 1 to 2 ounces of mozzarella and a sprinkling of Parmigiano-Reggiano (which I grate from the rinds that Whole Foods sells at a fraction of the price of bigger chunks, btw). That's plenty if I'm to keep on my recent weight-loss regimen, and besides, nobody could taste these results and think of them as anything but cheesy.

Halperin suggests serving this with pasta, but it was generous enough that I didn't want or certainly need anything on the side. You could split it in two and serve pasta and a salad on the side for you and another, and you'd both be satisfied. Perhaps not groaning, but plenty full.

Yonan is the author of "Serve Yourself: Nightly Adventures in Cooking for One," coming in March from Ten Speed Press.

Baby Eggplant Parmigiana
1 to 2 servings

Use more of the cheese if you want something especially rich, or less if you're going for something lighter.

MAKE AHEAD: You’ll have about 3/4 cup of tomato sauce left over, which can be refrigerated for up to 1 week or frozen for up to 6 months.

Adapted from Mario Batali recipes, by Food editor Joe Yonan.

For the tomato sauce
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 small onion, cut into 1/4-inch dice (1/2 cup)
2 medium cloves garlic, cut into thin slices
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
1/2 small carrot, grated (1/2 cup)
28 ounces canned whole peeled tomatoes, preferably San Marzano (juices reserved for another use)
Kosher or sea salt

For the dish
1 baby Italian eggplant (about 8 ounces), unpeeled, cut in half crosswise and then into eight 3/4-inch slices
Kosher or sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
1 to 2 ounces mozzarella cheese, grated
2 teaspoons freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
6 large basil leaves, stacked, rolled and cut crosswise into thin slices (chiffonade)
1 or 2 teaspoons plain dried bread crumbs

blog-eggplant-finished.jpg (Photos by Joe Yonan/The Washington Post)

For the tomato sauce: Heat the oil in a small saucepan over medium heat until the oil starts to shimmer. Add the onion and garlic; cook until lightly browned, stirring occasionally, about 10 minutes. Stir in the thyme and carrot; cook until the carrot is tender, about 5 minutes.

Use your fingers to crush the tomatoes into a medium bowl, then stir them (and resulting juices) into the saucepan. Once the mixture begins to bubble, reduce the heat to medium-low and cook until the tomatoes have broken down further to form a thickened sauce, about 10 minutes. Season with salt to taste. The yield is about 1 1/2 cups; reserve 3/4 cup for the dish and reserve the rest for another use.

For the dish: Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Line a rimmed baking sheet with aluminum foil.

Use the 2 teaspoons of oil to brush both sides of the eggplant slices, then lightly season the slices with salt and pepper on both sides. Roast until the eggplant starts to brown, 12 to 15 minutes, then transfer the eggplant slices to a plate to cool.

Reduce the oven temperature to 350 degrees. Place the 2 largest roasted eggplant slices back on the baking sheet, then top each one with a large spoonful of the tomato sauce, a sprinkle of basil and mozzarella (to taste) and a dusting of the Parmigiano-Reggiano. Top each with a second slice of roasted eggplant; repeat until you use the remaining cheeses, the 3/4 cup of tomato sauce and the eggplant, ending with an eggplant slice if possible. Sprinkle with the bread crumbs to taste, then drizzle lightly with oil.

Bake until the cheese has melted and is lightly browned, about 15 minutes.

By Joe Yonan  | December 20, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Cooking for One, Recipes  | Tags:  Joe Yonan, Project Downscale, recipes  
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Thank you for this post Mr. Yonan, the meal sounds delicious and I am happy that you were able to incorporate the fresh basil. As a follow up to your experience of the plant being damaged in the cold, I would like to offer up the suggestion we give me some of our customers. If you carry with you the insulated grocery bags, we recommend you add your living organic herb plant to that bag, especially for those shoppers who are walking in the cold temperatures. This will help insulate it from the weather and help to prolong the life.

Posted by: ShenandoahGrowers | December 21, 2010 6:33 AM | Report abuse

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