Everyone has a signature dish. Even folks who can't, won't, and hate to cook can make one thing really well. My mother-in-law, for example, whose idea of a great meal is a well-set table, makes an incredible beef tenderloin paired with double-stuffed baked potatoes every Christmas Eve. Three hundred and sixty-four days out of the year you'll get something she picked up from the prepared- food counter from a tony grocey store, nondescript frozen vegetables because they are "healthy," and a bottle of wine. The wine is always outstanding. But one glorious day every year she turns meat and pototoes into the 8th sacrament.
My signature dish is is eggplant parmesan. My husband has simply nick-named it "the eggplant. He reserves the article "the" for things that he truly loves--like his drink: a pint of the Guinness, or his children: the IRA. You get the idea. The nice thing about eggplant parmesan is that two large eggplants will feed close to 40 people. Two eggplants, two dozen eggs, a quart of olive oil, a small bag of flour, cheese and sauce. That's it. Cheap cheap. The bad thing is that it takes the better part of two days to make it. It is the quintessential labor of love.
So. Put on some comfy shoes--you'll be standing for hours. Throw on some old clothes and don't bother with any make-up. You'll soon be stained with tomato juice and splattered with olive oil, but come join me as we make "the Eggplant."
1. Purchase two large bulbous bright purple eggplants. They should be a deep shiny purple, almost blue, and firm to the touch, but neither hard nor squishy. Don't scrimp here; it's a cheap dish. You can live a little. Go to a shi-shi grocery store, buy organic, or hit a farmer's market. You can't make eggplant parmesan with crappy eggplants.
2. Peel off that gorgeous purple skin with a potato peeler and cut off the stem. Get out your sharpest knife; there is serious slicing ahead. Cut the eggplant lengthwise down the middle. Cut each half lengthwise again. Begin cutting each lengthwise quarter into the thinnest possible slices that you can and cut them lengthwise. Think paper thin. Lace like. You should be able to see the steel of your blade through the translucence of each delicate slice.
3. Place the eggplant slices in a colander, lightly salt, and then layer with paper towels. Continue to layer eggplant, salt and paper towels until you're done or the colander is full.
4. Now it gets a little weird. Go into your pantry and take out several heavy cans or jars and place them on top of your colandered eggplant pile. This isn't some freakish cult-like ritual. Eggplant juice is bitter and the salt and paper towels coupled with the weight of the cans will press out it out of your precious eggplant. Set aside, refrigerated, for several hours--preferably overnight.
5. Remove the cans and unlayer the towels and the eggplant. The towels will be wet and brown and you can happily throw them away knowing that their yuckiness will not sully your dish.
6. Now starts the marathon. Each dainty piece of juice-purged eggplant has to be dredged in flour, then dredged in egg, and hand-fried in olive oil. It's going to take hours. It helps to listen to Italian pop stars from the 50s. There's simply nothing that happens in a kitchen that isn't made a little easier by Frank Sinatra belting out "My Way." Chianti works too.
7. Beat about 6 eggs in a pie dish, and add a heaping teaspoon of parsley flakes for a little color. Lightly salt and pepper. In a separate dish, measure out about a cup and a half of flour. Lightly salt and pepper.
8. Generously coat a frying pan with olive oil--about a 1/4 inch depth and heat on medium to high heat until hot. Coat a piece of eggplant with flour, then egg, and then fry until golden brown. Place on a paper towel to absorb excess oil. Did I mention that you'll go through a TON of paper towels?
9. Repeat steps 7 and 8 until you have fried every damn piece of eggplant. You will likely curse both me and my mother--frequently in the same breath.
10. You can also swat at the hands of the various family members who will idly attempt to steal a piece or two from your growing tower of fried eggplant. You will be secretly pleased that they are doing so.
11. Once the fried eggplant has sufficiently cooled, layer it in a large pyrex rectangular pan as follows: sauce, eggplant, shredded mozarella, sauce, eggplant, mozarella, etc. Continue layering until the pan is full, finishing with sauce.
12. You will notice that I didn't provide you with a recipe for sauce. Please don't consider this omission an opportunity to go grab--God forbid--a commercially processed jarred sauce. Leaving out the sauce recipe is simply a cynical way to get you to read more of this blog. Check out the entry labelled "Good Irish Food" and follow the recipe for meat sauce--just leave out all the meat--both the sausage and the ground beef. The remaining parts of this recipe will result in a wonderful marinara sauce. It'll take you another few hours, but you're in this for the long haul, remember?
13. Bake the layered eggplant in an oven preheated to 375 degrees until the sides are boiling--about 30-45 minutes depending on the size of the pan.
14. Serve over pasta with a little extra sauce on top, and pour yourself more chianti. That is, of course, if the bottle's not already empty. If it is, go open another one; you've earned it.