Monday, September 22, 2008

Melanzane alla parmigiana

Melanzane alla parmigiana is one of the most famous eggplant-centered Italian dishes, well-known also in the US. However, not many people, not even in Italy, really know about the origin and the meaning of the name of this dish. ‘Melanzane alla parmigiana’ literally seems to mean ‘Eggplants in the style of Parma’, where Parma is a city in the North of Italy, famous for being the only place where the real ‘Parmigiano’ cheese can be produced (so-called ‘Parmesan’ in the US). Hence, most Italian people (including me up to a few weeks ago) think that this dish was invented in Parma, or at least, is made with a lot of ‘Parmigiano’ cheese. Instead, what I found out thanks to Simona, who spoke about this when I served this dish, is that this is traditionally a Sicilian dish! Sicily is pretty far from Parma, and Parmigiano cheese is really not typically used in Sicilian cuisine. In fact, originally, this dish is made with different types of cheese (caciocavallo, for example), more usually found in Sicily. So, where does the name come from? Apparently, ‘Parmiciana’ (which sounds really similar to ‘Parmigiana’, in Italian), refers to a type of blinds used in Sicily (and in the rest of Italy), made with wooden slats that are ‘layered’ to prevent light to come through the windows. The layers of eggplants and cheese and sauce in the Parmigiana dish remind of the layered wooden slats, and hence the name ‘Melanzane alla Parmigiana’. Really astonishing! I still cannot completely believe this is true, but it really seems to be. :)
Ok, enough with this philological introduction, and let’s proceed with the recipe! I wanted to experiment two different versions of this dish: the traditional one, made with fried eggplant slices, and a more modern (and light) one, made with grilled eggplants.

Melanzane alla parmigiana - due versioniEggplants parmigiana - two styles
(sorry about the awful picture: I took it the day after I prepared the dish, before the few leftovers were devoured. This is an example of the ‘traditional version’)
4 eggplants
Eggs (2-4 depending on how many you want to make in the traditional version)
½ quart milk
1 tbsp butter
3 tbsp flour + enough to flour the eggplants
Ground nutmeg
Grated parmigiano (ehm, caciocavallo ?  ) cheese
Mozzarella cheese
1 big can of whole peeled tomatoes
2 garlic cloves
Olive oil

Cut the eggplants in slices (~1/3” thick). For the traditional version: beat eggs and put them in a bowl. Set some flour on a plate. Pass the eggplant slices in the beaten eggs and then in the flour, making sure that an almost homogeneous layer of flour is attached to both sides of the eggplant slices. Fry these floured slices in abundant and good olive oil, set them aside between layers of absorbing paper to remove excess oil.
For the modern, lighter version: grill eggplant slices on the fire (use an anti-sticking pan or a griddle) and set them aside.
Prepare tomato sauce: mince garlic cloves in small pieces, fry them in 2 tbsp olive oil, and after ~1 min add tomatoes. Keep cooking, covered, for ~20 min, then remove lid and let some water evaporate. Add salt to taste, blend with an immersion blender and set aside.
Prepare besciamella sauce: put 3 tbsp flour in a pot and slowly start adding milk avoiding formation of clumps of flour. Add a total of ~1/2 quart milk. Then add 1 tbsp butter, 1 tsp ground nutmeg, salt to taste (~2 tsp) and bring to boil, mixing occasionally. When the mixture starts boiling, mix constantly to avoid sticking to the bottom of the pot, and turn off after about 3 min. It should become dense but not too much. If too dense, add milk, otherwise, keep cooking until enough milk evaporates.
Now start the layering: put one layer of eggplants in an oven-proof pan, add a dash of salt, then spoon some tomato sauce on top, besciamella sauce, sprinkle parmigiano and pieces of mozzarella. Repeat until the pan is full, finishing with the cheese layer. Cook in the oven, pre-heated at 350 F, for ~20-30 min.

I served the two versions side-to-side, to allow a true comparison. My guests were equally divided: half preferred the traditional version and half the lighter one. I personally thought that the traditional version was really what you find in Italy, what my grandma makes, and hence it’s incomparable to the lighter one for historical and affectionate reasons. However, as for the taste – I must confess I preferred the more modern version :) - the eggplant flavor was stronger, not covered by the taste of the fried layer around. My next experiment will be trying another possible version, which involves only frying the eggplant slices without previous passing them in egg and flour. Apparently some people think this is the original version (I don’t know exactly – my grandma for sure made the one I prepared, however, she’s not Sicilian). I’d be curious to see if simply frying the eggplants doesn’t cover their taste, and how it goes together with all the rest of the layers.

In any case, whichever version you choose: this dish is a winner. You cannot disappoint anybody if you prepare it. :)

This is my entry to the Fresh Produce of the Month event, this month centered on eggplants and hosted by Simona at Briciole!
(Ehm, sorry Simona, I'm late!!)


Simona Carini said...

I think that your idea of comparing the two versions was great. The guests was certainly very happy ;)

CurryLeaf said...

Nice to know abt the origins of a dish I relished first when I landed in US.I use Mario Batali's version to cook it now.I roast the eggplants in oven.In another version I fried eggplants as well.
This dish removed my aversion to eggplants actually. ;D

Porto Cesareo said...

I was looking for such suggest about my research in "Boccondivino-Bra" and that i saw your's "ricetta" and i think that your idea is great....even if i add, hands and "heart"....of parmigiano, and handle it "with care"....

Amanda said...

I absolutely adore eggplant in all it's glory--and parmigiana is a perennial favorite! Thanks for a lovely eduction on it's name, and a comparison of the two styles.

I generally like very thin (lightly breaded) slices stacked together with a thick tomato sauce. A friend of mine serves this cold in tiny potato rolls--divine!

Angela said...

Hi Marta, Parmigiana is absolutely a sicilian dish! My mom's traditional recipe would use just fried plain eggplants. Some however would pass before on eggs and flour or also would add ham and/or slices of boiled eggs in between the layers.
Compliments for your blog!

Kathy said...

Hello Marta, I am so happy to have found your blog, I am from London, now living in the Bay Area, I adore Italy and Sicily, parts of Napa remind me of Tuscany and my very best friend lives in Venice, I loved this post with the information on ‘Melanzane alla parmigiana". We are travelling soon (Asia and Europe)and I hope to be able to go to Venice if only for a quick visit. Our dream is to be able to retire back to Europe and of course Italy is the top of my list, ciao ciao, Kathy.

The Food Hunter said...

That is so interesting. Thanks for sharing and I think your eggplant looks yummy!