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Thursday, March 17, 2011

Buon Compleanno, Italia! 150th anniversary of the Unification: Celebrating with the Parmigiana dishes

A scene at Ravello, Amalfi Coast: Bella Italia
Photo By Frank Rubino
In honor of the 150th anniversary of the unification of Italy, which is today, March 17, I would like to present some of my favorite Italian dishes.  Eggplant, veal or chicken Parmigiana: who hasn't gone to an Italian restaurant and ordered  one of these?  Many people have asked me if I make these at home and if I would share the recipes, and I am more than happy to.   I think, and others seem to agree, if I do say so myself,  that my Parmigiana dishes rival those made at some of the best traditional Italian-American restaurants, and they are surprisingly easy to make.  One caveat: regarding the meat-based parmigiana recipes, I do not use veal, as I am squeamish about using cutlets made from infant calves, instead I use chicken cutlets. However, you are welcome to use veal if you like, as veal and chicken are virtually interchangeable due to their tenderness and mild taste.
Shutters, or Parmiciana, in Italy
Photo by Frank Rubino


I did a bit of research on  Parmigiana dishes as very little Parmigiana cheese, if any, is used as an ingredient.  According to the always useful Wikipedia, Parmigiana recipes are Southern Italian in origin, and refer to any dish made with a thin-sliced and fried filling, layered with cheese, usually mozzarella, and tomato sauce.  In Italy, Parmigiana is chiefly made with eggplant.  The meat-based dishes are an Italian-American creation.  

Although the word Parmigiana usually means "from Parma," which is in northern Italy, the word is thought to be taken from the Sicilian dialect word for shutters, parmiciana, which refers to the slats of wood, which overlap in the same way as the sliced filling in the dish. That is typical of Italians (or Sicilians, in this case), comparing food to common objects. Just think of how pasta is imaginatively named: radiatore, little radiators; orrichiette, little ears; or conchiglie, shells.  According to the Encyclopedia of Pasta by Oretta De Vita,  some small pastas are even named after prayers, such as the Ave Maria (Hail Mary), referring to the common practice of reciting a prayer before meals. Families knew these pastas were ready to eat after only one little prayer!


As I have said, these dishes are simple to make, however, there are certain steps that must be taken to ensure a rich, savory result that is not greasy nor too heavy.  Eggplant in particular can be an oil sponge; if you are not careful, it will soak up the oil like a wick when frying.  How do you prevent this? First, by making sure that the eggplant is sliced as thin as possible or the chicken is bought or pounded to no more than 1/4 inch thick, and second, that the oil is hot enough to cook quickly without burning, and third, creating a coating that will stick. 

Oil Hotter than Hot

Hot, Hot, Hot!
How do you make sure that the oil is hot enough? Oil must be from 365 to 375 degrees. You can buy a frying thermometer, or you can use one of these four methods: After heating the oil until shimmery over a medium high flame,  flick droplets of water in the oil; when it sizzles and bubbles immediately, it's ready.  Place the tip of the handle of a WOODEN spoon in the oil; when it bubbles, it is ready. Place a kernel of popcorn in the oil; when it pops: ready.  Place a cube of bread in the oil; if it browns in 60 seconds, again, it's ready.  I wait until the oil in the pan is shimmery, and then use the water method. The more hissy and bubbly, the better.   Also make sure you do not crowd the pan, as the temperature will drop to unacceptable levels and you will be left with a soggy mess.  I find that the first few eggplant rounds are slightly overbrowned, but that's ok...they are still delicious.
The French way to bread!


It is best to use the authentic French way to bread  the cutlets or eggplant rounds. This I learned from the book,  60 Minute Gourmet by the late Pierre Franey.  It involves dredging the cutlets or eggplant first in flour seasoned with salt and pepper, then egg, then fine bread crumbs. I find that if you wait a few minutes before frying, the combination of flour and egg forms a kind of glue that causes the breadcrumbs to adhere very well.  I think it also provides a barrier that prevent the oil from soaking in too quickly. 

Here are the recipes.  Both the eggplant and chicken recipe are nearly the same, except the eggplant is layered, and the chicken cutlets are not.  

Slice it thin! Not so easy...

Preheat oven to 350 degrees


1 large eggplant
    2 cups (approximately) flour, seasoned
      with salt and pepper
    3 large eggs
    2 cups (approximately) seasoned bread crumbs
1 quart or more of your favorite marinara sauce (recipe below)
2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese or 1/2 pound sliced thin
2-3 cups canola oil (this has a high smoking point; olive oil of any kind will smoke and burn)

Prepare marinara sauce:
     1 28 oz. can of crushed tomatoes
     1 28 oz can of peeled plum tomatoes in puree or juice, pureed
      (or two cans of crushed tomatoes)
      1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
      1 cup onions, chopped fine
      2 cloves garlic
      1/2 cup dry white wine
      2 parsley sprigs
      2-3 basil leaves (optional)
      Salt and pepper
      1/4 cup Pecorino Romano Cheese (optional, do not use salt if you add the cheese)
         (this gives the sauce a very rich flavor)
    Saute onions, then garlic in olive oil under a medium flame until translucent. Add  wine, cook until reduced by 1/3, then add tomatoes.  Add herbs and spices, and cook on a low flame for about an hour, stir frequently. Correct for seasoning, set aside. I usually start the sauce and prepare the rest of the ingredients. By the time I finish preparation, it's done.
Salt, and blot with paper towel
Peel eggplant, slice into thin slices, 1/4 to 1/8 inch or so thick.  On a baking sheet lined with parchment or wax paper, lay eggplant in one layer, and sprinkle lightly with salt.  When the moisture starts to bead, after about a half an hour, blot with paper towels. This is supposed to reduce the bitterness, however, if you skip this step it will probably not make much of a difference.

So yummy!
Place the coating mixtures in three different dishes. Beat the eggs until frothy.  Dredge the slices first in the flour, then the egg, then the breadcrumbs. Use a fork, or you will have club fingers, very gross! Make sure you use the fork to pat the crumbs to help them adhere.  Set aside, let the glue do its work!

In a high sided 12 inch frying pan, heat oil until approximately 375 degrees, using thermometer, water droplets, wooden spoon or other method. Line a baking sheet with paper towels. Place eggplant rounds in oil but do not crowd, and fry until golden brown, less than one minute per side.  Place eggplant rounds to drain on baking sheet.  

Ladle the sauce
Layering the eggplant
In a 9 by 13 inch lasagna pan, ladle about 1/2 cup of sauce on the bottom, layer eggplant, slightly overlapping.  Spoon about 2 cups of sauce over all. Sprinkle a tablespoon or less Pecorino Romano or Parmigiana cheese if you have not added cheese to the marinara sauce.
Evenly distribute 1 cup of shredded mozzarella cheese or 1/4 pound of thin slices over the sauce.  Place two more layers of eggplant, sauce and cheese.  Cover with aluminum foil, and bake for 30 minutes, or until bubbly.  Remove foil and bake for 10 minutes more.  

Let cool for about 20 minutes, and cut into squares, and serve.


2 pounds chicken cutlets, sliced or pounded thin

Use the same method as above, except you will probably need 2 lasagna pans. Prepare the same coating, and coat each chicken cutlet in flour, egg and then bread crumbs. Set aside.  Spoon 1/2 cup of sauce over the bottom of the pan, layer the chicken closely in the pan. Spread sauce over the chicken, and 2-3 cups of shredded or sliced mozzarella over all.  Cover with foil for the first 30 minutes, and uncover for 10 more minutes.   

Eggplant and Chicken Parmigiana, done!
I promise you will enjoy these dishes...they are my go-to dishes for friends or family, something easy to prepare in advance, even the night before.  If you save or make some extra sauce, you can serve pasta with it- my favorite cut for this dish is rigatoni, which captures the hearty sauce well in its rigati, or ridges.

Happy Birthday, Italy!

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