There are cooking projects and then there are cooking Projects. Projects with a capital “P” means set aside your afternoon, make no plans and maybe open a bottle of wine, because you’re going to be here awhile.
For me, eggplant Parmesan was always a Project, especially using the recipe I got hung up on (in a good way — it tasted great), which called for the multistep flour, egg and breadcrumb dredging and then numerous batches of skillet frying. I loved the dish, but time was not usually on my side, so I mostly limited my eggplant Parm consumption to restaurant-prepared subs.
I wouldn’t necessarily call that deprivation, but recently, part of me began to crave the warm, bubbling comfort of a large casserole dish brimming with eggplant, tomato sauce and cheese.
I knew I didn’t want to bread, fry or pre-treat the eggplant with salt, a trick that some cooks swear by for better flavor and texture. I tried a couple of recipes. One featured a single layer of eggplant softened under the broiler. I missed the multiple layers. Another used whole, small eggplants cooked in the tomato sauce in a covered skillet in the oven — novel, tasty, but not as fast as promised, and the texture was not quite right.
Then I came across a recipe from Jamie Oliver that seemed to tick all the boxes. Thick, roasted eggplant slices. A sauce that easily comes together while the eggplant is in the oven. A layer of bread crumbs on top instead of breading. It almost got me to where I wanted to be. Based on my prior testing, I decided to broil the eggplant instead of roasting it. That’s faster, even though I had to do one sheet pan at a time. It made the eggplant particularly silky as well. Oliver’s recipe was also designed to be lighter, with only Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.
It passed muster on taste; still, my colleagues and I missed the gooey presence of mozzarella. (You’ll be okay without it, if that’s what you prefer.) Finally, I decided to use panko — and more of it — than the called-for fine bread crumbs, which melted into the sauce on top and didn’t stand in as well for the breading that I had jettisoned.
The end result was a spectacular interpretation of a classic, good enough to be a sell on its own instead of a consolation prize for those of us with less time and energy. I do, however, recommend taking it to the next level by serving the dish with a crusty bread for mopping up the sauce or throwing together the best eggplant Parm sandwich of your life.
Recipe notes: You’ll need a 9-inch square baking dish or pan.
The dish can be assembled up to a day in advance and refrigerated. Let it come to room temperature on the counter while the oven preheats. Leftovers reheat well in the microwave, though the panko won’t be as crisp.
- 3medium eggplants, trimmed and cut crosswise into 1/2-inch slices (about 3 pounds total)
- 1⁄4cupextra-virgin olive oil, plus more for brushing (may use cooking oil spray instead of brushing on the oil)
- Kosher salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 1large onion, finely chopped (1 1/2 to 2 cups)
- 1large clove garlic, thinly sliced
- 1 1⁄2teaspoonsdried oregano
- 28ouncescanned, no-salt-added crushed tomatoes, plus their juices
- 1tablespoonred wine vinegar
- 1⁄2cuppacked fresh basil leaves, torn
- 1⁄2cupfreshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
- 8ounceslow-moisture mozzarella cheese, thinly sliced (not packed in water)
- 1tablespoonchopped fresh oregano leaves (from 1 stem; optional)
Position a rack 4 to 6 inches from the broiler element; preheat the broiler. Line two rimmed baking sheets with aluminum foil.
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Brush both sides of the eggplant slices with some oil and season lightly with salt and pepper, arranging them in a single layer on the baking sheets. Broil one sheet at a time for 10 minutes, rotating the pan from front to back halfway through, until the eggplant is soft and somewhat browned. Turn over the slices and broil for 2 minutes, just until they begin to dry out with a hint of browning on the surface. Let cool slightly. Reduce the oven temperature to 375 degrees.
Meanwhile, heat half the oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Stir in the onion and cook for about 10 minutes, until softened and translucent. Add the garlic and dried oregano; cook for 30 seconds, stirring constantly, until fragrant.
Add the crushed tomatoes and their juices; increase the heat to medium-high and cook just until the liquid starts to bubble, then partially cover, reduce the heat to low and cook for 20 minutes to form a slightly thickened sauce. Stir in the vinegar and basil, then season lightly with salt and pepper. Turn off the heat.
Spoon just enough of the sauce to thinly coat the bottom of your 9-inch square baking dish or pan. Add a single layer of the broiled eggplant slices, using about a third of them and overlapping slightly as needed. Spread a third of the remaining sauce over the eggplant, followed by a third of the Parmigiano-Reggiano and half the mozzarella. Repeat with another third of the eggplant, sauce and Parm and then the rest of the mozzarella. Finish with the remaining eggplant, sauce and Parm.
Stir together the panko, the remaining oil and the fresh oregano, if using, in a medium bowl, until evenly coated. Scatter the mixture evenly over the top of the eggplant Parm. Bake (at 375 degrees, middle rack) for 35 to 40 minutes, until the sauce is bubbling, the top is golden brown and the center is hot.
Let cool for 5 minutes before serving.
Adapted from “Jamie’s Italy,” by Jamie Oliver (Hachette, 2006), as posted online by the New York Times.
The nutritional analysis is based on 6 servings.
Calories: 420; Total Fat: 26 g; Saturated Fat: 10 g; Cholesterol: 35 mg; Sodium: 530 mg; Carbohydrates: 30 g; Dietary Fiber: 9 g; Sugars: 13 g; Protein: 17 g.