We are three sisters united in our search for the divine - in food, libation, literature, art, and nature. This blog will capture the true, sometimes decadent, at times humorous, and every so often transcendent adventures of the Salvation Sisters.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Summer Food Rituals and Eggplant Parmigiana

by Linda

"A ritual is a set of actions, performed mainly for their symbolic value... There are hardly any limits to the kind of actions that may be incorporated into a ritual." ~Wikipedia

   I love seasonal food rituals. I love preparing and eating all of the traditional foods associated with major holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas. As for me, I also celebrate Eggplant Parmigiana Day. Eggplant Parmigiana is a dish that I associate with long days, warm weather and garden plots that are producing at their peak. My Grandma Elsie grew eggplant in her garden when I was a girl. I recall her breading and frying up slices of eggplant, that we girls would eat plain, dipped in catsup.
   In later years I learned to make Eggplant Parmigiana which I love. I make Eggplant Parmigiana once in the summer each year without fail, just as I am driven by my own internal clock to pull my ice cream maker out of storage to make at least one batch of our family's homemade lemon ice cream before Labor Day arrives. The summer would not be complete for me without making these foods, which in my mind, pay homage to the sun, and happy memories of many summers past.

My son, Joshua and I on the Cayucos pier in October of 2005.
   One particularly memorable summer a few years ago, I was staying at my friend Richard's beach apartment in Cayucos, California on the weekends. Cayucos sits just off of Highway 1 near Morro Bay. I adore this sleepy little beach town that has a wonderful farmer's market on Friday mornings during the summer season. It is adjacent to the pier.

The Farmer's Market in Cayucos on a Friday morning in mid-July.
   Richard's apartment sat on a hill, and was just a short walk to the pier and the minuscule downtown. The apartment was designed with floor to ceiling windows and a nice deck, all of which commanded a panoramic view of the Pacific Ocean. What wonderful weekends I spent there for several years before I moved up north. 

Michelle, Maddie and I passing a pleasant afternoon on Cayucos Beach.
   On one particular Friday morning near midsummer, I walked over to the farmer's market after having my Saturday morning cup of coffee on the pier. There I found the farm stand tables filling the beach parking lot stacked high with glowing purple eggplant, fragrant and blazing red vine-ripened tomatoes, and woven baskets piled high with just-harvested bunches of basil. As my eyes took in all of the summer's beautiful bounty, I knew at once that Eggplant Parmigiana Day had arrived.

   I spent the rest of the day in a blissful state of euphoria, while I prepared my own marinara, let the sliced and salted eggplant leach its bitter juices on to a half sheet pan to ready for breading and sautéing, and I kneaded dough for French bread. I languidly sipped a delicious glass of zinfandel (which the area is known for) by Tobin James. As I worked joyfully, I allowed myself to be hypnotized by the unceasing coming and going of the waves on the shoreline below, as I tried my best to name the ever-changing shades of blue on the surface of the water that stretched as far as my eyes could see in any direction.

The view from Richard's condo.
   This year the voluptuous purple beauties showed up at my own market a couple of weeks ago. It was a thrilling moment for me after enduring an incredibly long, cold and wet Nor Cal Winter and Spring. Those luscious eggplant were a sight for sore eyes desperately in need of a sun-drenched Mediterranean vacation. I quickly plucked the two most gorgeous specimens off the table, and took them home, cheered by the visual confirmation that summer was here at last, and that the morrow would be Eggplant Parmigiana Day. The next morning I enacted the ritual once more of the peeling, slicing, salting, waiting, breading, frying and layering. It is a process that I cherish. The results of my days efforts were satisfying and delicious, just as I knew they would be, which is the beauty of enacting a ritual.
   At the end of the day, every nuanced bite was an acknowledgment of my present abundance and good fortune. Each taste on the tongue announced the arrival and celebration of yet another summer, but also provided a portal into summers past. For the conclusion of this year's Eggplant Parmigiana Day there was also a bowl of our family's lemon ice cream for dessert. I reveled in the warm evening outdoors on my deck under the giant oak tree, offering up thanks for my good fortune at being alive on that particular summer's day, and, it almost goes without saying... I didn't forget to make a toast and a blessing to the sun.

Linda's Eggplant Parmigiana

   There is an ongoing debate about eggplant... to salt or not to salt. I have joined the salting camp. When I was 20, and my husband Danny and I were a very young couple, with a food budget so meager that I toted a calculator to the grocery store each visit, I decided to make a Moussaka with egglant and ground beef. The recipe that I used was from my then, newest favorite magazine, Bon Appétit.
   In those days Danny and I preferred casserole type dishes that would serve for a least three meals during the week. This strategy worked for our small family that lived on a student budget. To say the Beef Moussaka that I made that evening for our dinner was a disaster, is probably an understatement. When Danny and I expectantly tried the first bites, I recall that we nearly spat it back out on our plates. The whole dish was bitter and mushy, and perfectly awful. I think I cried that night when I had to throw the whole thing out. Not only was it a horrific waste of food, but I also knew that we would be eating canned beans and sandwiches for the rest of the week, instead of the hot and satisfying dish which I had imagined when I read the recipe.
   It wasn't until a few years later that I read about the technique of salting the slices of raw eggplant and letting the slices sit for several hours to draw out the juice. I have done this ever since. I have found it to change not only the texture of the eggplant (it becomes more firm and meaty), but it also draws out any bitterness. I wish I had only known about this technique when I attempted my disastrous Moussaka on that day in 1977.

Danny and I ate a lot of filling and inexpensive casseroles back in 1977.
   A note about the marinara. Some years when I have time and access to great tomatoes, I love nothing more than to make my own marinara. This year I did not have time. There are a couple of excellent marinaras that are available from your local grocer. Rao's is one, and they also provide a recipe on their website. This year I used Mario Batali Tomato and Basil Sauce which is made with fresh San Marzano tomatoes and fresh basil and no preservatives. It is truly delicious, and shaves off several hours of prep time for this recipe.


2 large and firm eggplants
sea salt
2 eggs
1-1/2 cups seasoned bread crumbs
1/2 cup all purpose flour
dried Italian herbs
cracked black pepper
olive oil for sautéing
24-ounces of good quality marinara/pasta sauce
1 12-ounce package of good quality mozzarella slices (I use 356 Organic from Whole Foods Market) or you can also use grated mozzarella, but the slices are quicker
1/2 pound Parmigiano Reggiano
fresh basil, if desired, for garnish

Special equipment:

1. One half sheet pan with a cooling rack fitted in or over the pan that will catch the run-off liquid from the eggplant.
2. A large skillet (I used a nonstick 3 quart Calphalon pan with a 10 inch circumference. You can also use a casserole dish if desired. I like baking in the pan I used for sautéing... less clean up and great for a family-style presentation on the table.


1. Peel the eggplant and slice into rounds no more than 1/2 inch thick. Place a large cooling rack over the top of a large sheet pan. Lightly salt both sides of the eggplant (I use Eden Hand Harvested Celtic Sea Salt for almost all my salt uses). Then spread the salted slices out in a single layer on the top of the cooling rack. Liquid will begin to pool almost immediately on the surface of the slices and run off into the cookie sheet or sheet pan. Turn the slices over every 30 minutes. After about an hour and a half, I lightly salt the slices again. It will take 3 hours for the slices to be ready.

Salted eggplant slices drain over a cooling rack set over a cookie sheet to catch the draining liquid.
2. Preheat oven to 350°F.
3. Heat your skillet with a shallow layer of olive oil covering the pan. Be cautious with the heat, olive oil does not stand up to high heat.
4. When the eggplant is ready, crack eggs into a pie plate or shallow dish and blend with a fork or whisk. In another shallow dish or on a plate combine bread crumbs, flour, 1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper, and 2 teaspoons of dried Italian herb mix. It is important to note: Do not add any additional salt to this recipe, because the eggplant already been salted.

5. Pat eggplant slices dry with a clean flour sack towel or paper towels making sure to wipe off any excess salt. Dip eggplant slices in eggs to coat on each side and then transfer into the bread crumb and flour mixture. When each slice is coated, place in the hot olive oil and then allow to sauté until nicely browned on both sides. I grind a little extra black pepper onto the slices when frying (no salt!). When browned, remove the slices from the pan and transfer onto sheet pan layered with paper towels to help drain any excess oil. Cook the eggplant in batches until all pieces have been sautéed, adding a little more oil if necessary for the second batch.
6. Use part of your marinara sauce to place a thin layer of sauce on the bottom of your skillet. Cover the bottom of the skillet with half of eggplant slices. Cover with half of the remaining sauce. Then place 4 slices of mozzarella on top of the eggplant covered with sauce. Next, grate a generous amount of the Parm Reggiano over the top. Place the last layers of the eggplant on top of the completed layer. Cover with the rest of the sauce, grate another generous amount of Parmigiano Reggiano over the top. The last layer should be four more slices of mozzarella, and then finish off with more grated parm.
7. Place the skillet in a hot oven and cook for about 40 minutes until bubbly and the mozzarella is lightly browned and the whole dish is bubbling. I shield the skillet in the oven with a rack placed over the top of the skillet with a sheet pan on top. These keeps the cheese from burning. Remove the shielding sheet pan for the last five minutes of cooking if cheese needs to be a deeper brown.
8. I like serving Eggplant Parmigiana in a skillet because it makes a great family-style presentation on the table. Just place the steaming pan on a trivet or tile in the middle of the table, and diners can serve themselves. With a side salad, garlic bread and a good bottle of red wine, this makes a great, and easy dish for guests. Serves 4.

1 comment:

  1. You know, I bet this is another thing that wold do really well in my oval crockpot. Eggplant Parm, which I adore, too. I have found, lately, so many unusual things to do in the pot..including lasagna without even cooking the noodles. Someone sent me a cheesecake recipe, too. That little gadget is becoming a really good friend in this hot humid weather.


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