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Ciao Down Grilled Eggplant Parm

"My mother's menu consisted of two choices: Take it or leave it." Buddy Hackett

If you love "Eggplant Parmesan" as served in most restaurants, you are in for a treat, because this simple grilled version just slaughters it.

Most of the time the eggplant is breaded and fried. The problem is that eggplant is like a sponge and it soaks up enough grease to slick back Fonzi's hair. Then it is buried in canned red sauce and cheese that is one electron from being plastic.

The frying completely masks the flavor of the eggplant and stringy pizza cheese adds nothing but chewiness and calories.

Great Eggplant Parm should taste like, well, eggplant, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, and fresh tomatoes. We get there by grilling the eggplant rather than frying it, and using real Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese from Italy (vastly superior to American parm), and a home-made tomato sauce. Grilling leaves the eggplant's natural flavor intact, adds a nuttiness and sweetness, and doesn't turn it mushy if you do it right.

In most cooking the quality of the input controls the quality of the output, and that is especially true for this dish. Late summer is the best time for eggplant, but imported eggplant it can be found all year round, and the good news is it travels well.

Late summer is also the season of fresh tomatoes and fresh herbs, and, although canned tomatoes and dried herbs work fine in this recipe, there is no substitute for fresh basil and fresh oregano.

Trust me, once you try this you'll never settle for the greasy plasticky stuff again.

Recipe

Serves. 2 as a main course

Preparation and cooking time. 1 hour

Ingredients

2 medium sized eggplants (about 6 to8" long)

1/4 teaspoon table salt

1/4 teaspoon ground pepper

1 large portobello mushroom

4 tablespoons olive oil

4 tablespoons fresh oregano, chopped

4 tablespoons fresh basil, chopped

1 cup fired up marinara sauce or canned tomato sauce

1/2 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

1/4 cup fresh mozzarella

About the eggplants. Occasionally you will see recipes that call for you to salt the eggplants and let them sit to reduce bitterness. I've just never found this to be necessary with fresh eggplants.

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About the Parmigiano-Reggiano. Please do not use anything labeled "parmesan". It barely resembles the real thing from Italy, the "king of cheeses", Parmigiano-Reggiano (at right). Real Italian Parm has a distinctive flavor, especially after it melts, that really amps this dish over the top. Save the stuff in the green cardboard toilet paper tube for Spaghetti-Os.

About the mozzarella. Try to get fresh mozzarella. It is often in the deli counter still floating in whey or water. It works a lot better than the other stuff in this (and most other recipes).

Riffing. This recipe allows you a lot of flexibility. Skip the mushrooms if you wish. Add more sauce. Add fresh tomatoes, add thyme, use dried herbs, use canned sauce, make a blend of other cheeses, add hot pepper flakes, riff away.

Optional. If fresh basil is not available, dried works fine. In fact I once did this dish by sprinkling dried whole basil leaves on the eggplant and under the sauce, and by the time the cheese had melted and dinner was served, the basil remained crunchy. That was fun! Keep in mind, these were whole leaves, not flakes. Another, excellent option, is to add a tablespoon of pesto sauce to the tomato sauce. Splendido! Or use marinara sauce.

Serve with. Garlic bread and tossed green salad with an oil and vinegar dressing. A big red or even a chilled sangria would be nice.

Method

1) Preheat the grill to medium heat and set it up in a 2-zones.

2) A lot of recipes call for salting and squeezing the eggplant. I have never found this necessary if the fruit is fresh and firm. But there is a trick to reduce any stray bitterness: Remove some, but not all of the skin. This also makes it easier to cut and chew. The skin has a lot of flavor, but it can be tough. Peel the eggplants partially by making long vertical stripes. If you don't stripe it, the skin can form hard leathery bands that are difficult to cut and bite. Now slice the tubes widthwise into 1/2" thick disks and put them in a large bowl. They look cool if you slice on a slight angle. Add the mushroom to the bowl. Sprinkle with the salt, pepper, and olive oil, and toss them until lightly coated with oil and seasoning. Add more oil if necessary.

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3) Grill the mushroom and eggplant over medium high direct heat until they begin to soften but not until they are limp. Back in the bowl they go. Leave the grill running.

4) In a metal baking pan, spread the eggplants out on the bottom. They can overlap if necessary. Cut the mushroom into bite-size chunks and scatter them on top of the slices. Sprinkle on the herbs. Then spoon the tomato sauce on making sure each slice of eggplant is well covered. Next goes the Parmigiano-Reggiano, then place a disk of the fresh mozzarella on top of each disk of eggplant.

5) Put the pan on the grill in the indirect heat zone and close the lid. Depending on your grill it will take about 20 minutes for the cheeses to melt. You can wait until it begins to brown slightly, but fresh mozz is slow to brown. Then serve with a big red wine and a loaf of crusty bread. Maybe some garlic bread. I like to cut off hunks and put it on the bread and make open face sandwiches.

This page was revised

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