The problem with making ‘light’ versions of ‘bad’ foods is that I am inevitably disappointed; sure, I use Greek yogurt in place of sour cream (all the time, really), I try to cut the amount of oil in my salad dressings by using more vinegar, and I’ll try to occasionally squeeze in some low fat coconut milk, even if I know I like the regular kind so much better.
Bikinis, they require these sorts of sacrifices, no? (And of course this one that I’ve got my eye on is no exception. #hellotreadmillivemissedyou.)
But what I really mean is that when I’ve got a hankering for something, like, say….eggplant parmigiano, I’m not about to try and grill it, stuff it with fat-free cottage cheese, and eat it on a rice cake to try and get my fix. (I’ve got nothing ‘gainst rice cakes, but come on.)
At best, eggplant parmigiano is nothing short of transcendent; crisp, melty, silken, and gooey in the best way that gooey can be. At worst – and, actually, most of the time – it leaves more than a little to be desired. Greasy, oil-sodden stacks of eggplant deep-fried with too much breading, elastic-y plastic-y mozzarella cheese, and a snarl of limp overcooked linguine. Not to be Debbie-Eggplant-Downer, but I rarely treat myself to a plate of it while eating out, because there is nothing more frustrating than setting yourself up for disappointment and order-envy.
Though I have no qualms about eating a pile of pasta, I do think that it is the wrong pairing with parmigiano dishes – both the chicken and eggplant variety. Once you do up your parmigiano right – without skimping on a few types of high quality cheese or frying the the main event up till it’s light and crisp – a whole bunch of pasta usually feels excessive and unnecessary to me. I only ever make it through a couple of bites anyway, and the rest gets sidelined into a doggy bag, which, in our house, actually goes to a dog, sent home to Princess Winifred for her to eat for supper (a more spoiled puglet I never did meet).
When we were in a deep freeze last week, I was craving something comforting and homey, and made this eggplant parmigiano. Instead of the usual bed of pasta, I spooned my crisped up eggplant and oozy mozzarella coins over a tangled pile of lightly seasoned spaghetti squash, and the end result was fantastic. Rather than the typical conundrum of feeling so-full-I-could-die after attempting to take down a Mt. Everest of linguine, the squash subs in beautifully, and lends a perfect ‘al-dente’ bite to a dish that is mostly soft and unctuous. Instead of breading my eggplant in panko or breadcrumbs, I used matzo meal mixed up with a healthy dose of salt, pepper, and feathery shaved parmesan cheese, and the resulting fried slices were light, savory, crisp, and felt just barely fried.
A healthier version, perhaps; but one that felt neither lean nor shortchanged, and scratched that little eggplant-parm-itch that tends to raise it’s head when the days are short and the nights are cold.
Eggplant Parmigiano with Spaghetti Squash, Three Cheeses, and a Simple Tomato Sauce
serves 4, or 2 with leftovers for the next day
2 small Italian eggplant
2 cups matzo meal
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1/2 cup finely grated parmesan cheese
kosher salt & black pepper
grapeseed oil (or other neutral oil that can withstand high heat)
1 28oz can crushed tomatoes (San Marzano, if possible)
2 Tbsp tomato paste
1 small white onion, grated coarsely on a box grater or finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
8-10 leaves fresh basil
4 oz good quality fresh mozzarella, sliced thinly
3 oz provolone, shredded
1 small spaghetti squash, cut in half lengthwise and seeds spooned out
To begin, start the sauce. Heat enough oil to cover the bottom of a medium sized saucepan over medium heat. Add the grated onion and minced garlic, and saute until the onion is just translucent and the garlic is fragrant, stirring frequently, 3-4 minutes. Add the tomato paste and cook it, mixing it into the garlic and onion mixture and taking care not to let it burn, 2 minutes. Add the can of crushed tomatoes, and stir well. Let the mixture come just to a boil, then turn the heat down and let it simmer till it reduces and thickens slightly, stirring occasionally, at least 30 minutes.
While the sauce simmers, prepare your eggplant. Slice the eggplant into rounds that are 1/3 – 1/2 inch thick. Heat a large skillet over high heat, add enough grapeseed oil to cover the bottom of the pan, and then just a bit more (you definitely don’t want any dry spots, otherwise the eggplant will come out unevenly cooked). Preheat your oven to 425F. Set up two bowls, and fill one with the beaten eggs and the other with the matzo meal, the grated parmesan cheese, and a good bit of kosher salt and black pepper (mix this crumb mixture well). Season your eggplant slices with kosher salt and black pepper, and then dredge the slices first in the egg, and then in the matzo mixture, shaking off any excess. Carefully lay your breaded slices into the hot oil, and fry them, flipping once, till the matzo coating is a deep golden brown and the eggplant is tender when pricked with a fork. You will need to fry your slices in batches; do not crowd the pan, and add additional oil as needed. Gently lay the finished (fried) slices on a plate covered with paper towels as you work your way through the batches.
When all of your eggplant is fried and your sauce has simmered and reduced for at least 30 minutes, you are ready to assemble your parmigiano. Spoon half of the tomato sauce into the bottom of a large ovenproof casserole dish. Arrange the slices of fried eggplant over the top of the sauce, trying to keep them as best you can to one layer (it’s ok if they overlap a little bit in places). Spoon the other half of the tomato sauce over the eggplant. Dot the fresh basil leaves over the top of the tomato sauce, and then lay the slices of fresh mozzarella over the top. Sprinkle the dish with the grated provolone, and bake in the preheated oven for 35-40 minutes, until the cheese is bubbling and melted and the eggplant slices are extremely tender when pricked with a fork (you can cover the dish with tin foil if at any time you feel that the cheese is burning).
Place the spaghetti squash cut-side down on a lightly oiled baking sheet, and place it in the oven along with the eggplant parmigiano. Bake the squash for 35-40 minutes, until a knife can easily pierce the skin and flesh of the squash.
When the eggplant is tender, turn the oven to high-broil, and let the cheese become golden in spots, 1-2 minutes, keeping a close eye on it and making sure it doesn’t burn. Let the cooked parmigiano rest to the side for 10 minutes to cool slightly and set up.
Shred the sides of the cooked spaghetti squash with a fork, and season the mass of squash strands with kosher salt, fresh cracked pepper, and a drizzle of olive oil. To serve, mound the squash in the center of a plate, and carefully spoon a couple of eggplant slices atop. Spoon some of the tomato sauce that is in the bottom of the casserole dish over the top, and serve immediately.