July 12, 2014 – Grilled Eggplant Parmesan

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On Saturday night, we made Grilled Eggplant Parmesan. This recipe offers a nice twist  on the traditional approach, as it uses tomato slices instead of tomato sauce, involves lightly grilling the eggplant and tomato before assembling, and features fontina cheese instead of mozzarella. Tony describes how he made this unique dish:

I have to say this up front – I’m not a big fan of eggplant at all. I don’t hate it, really, but I never go out of my way to make it or even order it at a restaurant. (Don’t ever tell her, but it is the one and only thing that my Very Italian Mother makes that I don’t love.) The one exception to my “Eggplant? Meh.” attitude is ratatouille, but I may be unduly influenced by the cute animated movie of the same name. I was hoping that this recipe would change my mind about eggplant and very I’m happy to say that it totally did. I’m also happy to say that we made the whole recipe so we have leftovers!

The prep work for this recipe was pretty minimal. First, I peeled a large eggplant (a vegetable peeler works great for this, but you can also use a knife) and then sliced it into 1/4 inch thick rounds. I was pretty impressed with my ability to produce very even slices just using a knife; of the 16 slices I got from the eggplant, only one was a little thin and only two were a little thick. I already knew from past experience that I really don’t like eggplant with the skin still on, but tonight I learned that I also don’t like it if it’s sliced too thick. Next time, I’ll break out the very dangerous yet highly efficient  mandoline and make more consistent slices.  I also sliced the tomatoes into 1/4 thick rounds and sliced the cheese as thinly as I could.

For this recipe, I used a fontina that comes in a wheel and that has a rind. I used about 1/3 of a wheel (a whole wheel is about 6 inches in diameter) and cut the rind off of the outer edge, but left it on the top and bottom. This is why in the photos below all the fontina slides have a brown edge on two sides. We found that the rind gave the finished dish a nice, earth nuttiness, above and beyond what the cheese itself imparts, but you can remove all the rind (or use a fontina without one) if you like.

After brushing the eggplant and tomatoes with olive oil and sprinkling them with salt (both sides for both steps, of course) it was time to start grilling. This step wasn’t difficult, as the eggplant only takes two minutes a side and the tomato only one, but that also means you have to stay on top of things.  Since we have a grill pan that stretches over two burners, I was able to cook the eggplant and tomatoes in just two batches each, which took  a total of about 20 minutes. If you’re not able to cook as many slices at once, you’ll have to budget your time accordingly. You just want to get a slight char on everything; you don’t want to cook the eggplant so long that it gets mushy and the tomatoes so long that they completely fall apart.

While the veggies were cooking I made the olive, pepper, and basil mixture. (I had a timer going on the veggies at every step and put down whatever else I was doing when it was time to tend to the veggies.) This was pretty straightforward, but it took a little longer than it should have: I was using olives with pits and had to cut the flesh off with a knife. Even so, I was able to do this and grill the veggies at the same time. I only used one tablespoon of the chopped Calabrian peppers because I had no real idea of how spicy they were – the answer is very spicy if you taste them on their own but not so spicy once mixed into the dish – but I would experiment with more next time.

The next to last step is the assembly. I simply arranged one layer of eggplant, one of tomato, one of the olive mixture, and one of the cheese on a piece of parchment paper I had placed on a baking dish. I repeated the layering process until all the ingredients were used up. The finished product looked like this (here’s where you can see the rind on the fontina):

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The final steps were cooking and resting: 15 minutes in a 450 degree oven followed by 10 minutes on the counter. While the edges of the eggplant were a little wet and runny (the tomatoes and eggplant still have quite a bit of moisture in them and the cheese gets very melty), the top was a beautiful golden brown.

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As I said, this dish really changed my mind about eggplant. The eggplant and tomatoes were tender without being mushy and the olive/pepper/basil mixture was a nice mix of briny, spicy, and herbal. What really put this dish over the top though was the fontina. It has so much more depth of flavor than mozzarella, especially with the rind left on, that I can’t imagine making this dish with any other kind of cheese. We paired this dish with some ciabatta rolls and a nice Barbera d’Alba and had another wonderful dinner.

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