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Awe-bergine: Alice Zaslavsky’s low-fuss recipe for stuffed eggplant parmigiana | Australian food and drink

Awe-bergine: Alice Zaslavsky’s low-fuss recipe for stuffed eggplant parmigiana | Australian food and drink
Awe-bergine: Alice Zaslavsky’s low-fuss recipe for stuffed eggplant parmigiana | Australian food and drink

Eggplant is the introverted extrovert of the vegetable kingdom: slow to warm up, sure, but before long it’s the life of the party. Like any I-E, this nightshade needs time and tools to break down its defences, lest it be served up in its naturally bitter, astringent form; if you’ve ever bitten into an eggplant and it bit back, that’s because it’s undercooked.

No one likes to risk bitey eggplant, which is why – despite its marvellous meatiness – many home cooks shy away from it as a meat-free midweeker. But by halving, slashing and then salting it you also halve its cooking time.

Traditional eggplant parmigiana (baked in layers or fried after being breaded) can be a fiddly affair. True to the way I like to cook, my version makes some low-effort, high-return twists, including creating a flavoursome crumb while the eggplants roast and baking the eggplant Japanese nasu dengaku-style: halved, cross-hatched then stuffed with breadcrumbs and cheese.

Ready, set, cook … the ingredients for Alice Zaslavsky’s eggplant parma with parsley and garlic pangrattato. Photograph: Eugene Hyland/The Guardian

Take your time where it matters – including sweating down the onions (which you can conveniently do while the oven preheats) and making sure the eggplant is properly cooked through. You could even do these steps while you prepare dinner the night before, which will leave you with only half the cooking to complete the following evening, with speedy yet sumptuous eggplant as your reward.

You might have read that salting eggplant helps “draw out” its bitterness, but kitchen science king Harold McGee in his book On Food and Cooking describes the more likely effect of tricking the tongue into experiencing the eggplant’s flavour as “creamier”, so it naturally tastes less bitter. He says salt also helps to break down the eggplant’s spongy cell structure, pulling out the moisture and making it easier for oil to penetrate – which is why it’s particularly useful for recipes where you’re frying eggplant.

Eggplant parma with parsley and garlic pangrattato – recipe

Parma offensive … spooning the stuffing inside each eggplant skin. Photograph: Eugene Hyland/The Guardian

Even though we’re roasting rather than frying the eggplant here, pre-salting those cross-hatched halves increases the surface area and helps release moisture; in the oven they will start to collapse and soak up the olive oil in the base of the pan as they cook and colour. You’ll know yours has cooked through when you can easily scoop the flesh from the skin in one fell swoop.

Speaking of fell swoops, using the breadcrumbs as both stuffing and crumbing will help bulk out the eggplant mix and make the top lovely and textural. I’ve used panko because I prefer their shape and crunch, but if you’ve got some homemade breadcrumbs handy, use them!

While parsley is plentiful in gardens and greengrocers, it pays to make a bunch of parsley and garlic (“PG”) paste and then upcycle this into PG pangrattato. This recipe makes enough PG paste to have some left over – perfect for tomorrow’s dinner (stir it through pasta or loosen with more olive oil for a salad dressing). Transfer the leftover paste to a clean container with a tight-fitting lid and store in the fridge for up to a week, or pop into ice cubes and freeze to use over six months.

You could even make double the PG crumbs to sprinkle over anything that requires extra crunch such as soup, pasta or salad.

Alice Zaslavsky blitzes parsley, garlic, lemon zest and juice, oil and salt to make PG paste. Photograph: Eugene Hyland/The Guardian

I’ve served the eggplant parm with some crusty bread for mopping up the sauce, but you could just serve it as is, with a fork and spoon.

Serves 6

1 brown onion, diced
60ml extra-virgin olive oil (¼ cup)
, plus extra for drizzling
1 tbsp salt flakes
3-4 medium eggplants
3-4 garlic cloves
, minced
2 x 400g tins whole peeled cherry tomatoes
1 tbsp red wine vinegar
Chopped parsley and crusty bread
, to serve (optional)

To make the stuffing
½ cup panko crumbs
1½ cups shredded mozzarella, plus one extra handful for sprinkling
2 tbsp parsley
, roughly chopped

PG (parsley and garlic) paste
50g parsley
(½ bunch), leaves and stalks roughly chopped
4-5 garlic cloves
Zest and juice of ½ lemon
125ml extra-virgin olive oil
(½ cup)
½ tsp salt flakes

PG crumbs
65g PG paste (¼ cup)
50g panko breadcrumbs (1 cup)
50g butter
1 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil

Pop the onion and the olive oil on to a deep baking tray or dish and then into a cold oven. Set the temperature to 200C/180C fan, so the onions cook while the oven heats up.

Let the onions cook while the oven heats up. Photograph: Eugene Hyland/The Guardian
Nightshade sweats: sprinkle the halved, criss-crossed eggplants with salt and leave in a bowl. Photograph: Eugene Hyland/The Guardian

While the onions are cooking, halve the eggplants lengthways and slice the flesh in a deep criss-cross pattern, taking care not to slice through the skin. Liberally sprinkle the exposed faces with salt flakes and gently rub in the salt. Leave the eggplants in a bowl to sweat.

Returning to the onions: once the oven is at temperature, pull them out if they’re translucent and starting to colour. Or – especially if you have a faster-heating oven – stir the onions about and set the timer for three more minutes. Remove the tray from the oven (but leave the oven on). Scoop the onions into a large bowl, stir through the minced garlic and set aside.

Line the base of the baking tray with baking paper (this will help prevent the eggplant from sticking), then drizzle with olive oil. Gently squeeze out any excess moisture from the eggplants, pat them dry with paper towels and place them cut-side down on the oiled paper. Roast for 30 minutes.

While the eggplant cooks, sploosh the tinned tomatoes and red wine vinegar in with the onion and garlic. Combine and taste for seasoning.

Remove the eggplants from the oven and on to a chopping board to cool (but leave the oven on). Discard the baking paper, then pour the tomato mixture into the baking dish.

To make the stuffing, in the same bowl that held the tomato mixture, combine the panko crumbs, mozzarella and parsley. When cool enough to handle, scoop the eggplant into the bowl using a spoon, squashing them about to break them up into roughly 1cm chunks while being careful not to tear through the skin (save the skins – you’ll need them later). Gently stir the stuffing mixture until well combined, breaking up the eggplant as you go. The texture should be like a chunky soup, not baba ganoush.

You’ll know the eggplant is cooked through when you can easily scoop the flesh from the skin. Photograph: Eugene Hyland/The Guardian
The hollowed-out eggplants ready to be stuffed. Photograph: Eugene Hyland/The Guardian

Carefully remove the baking tray from the oven (leave the oven on). Arrange the eggplant halves, facing up, on top of the tomato sauce, then spoon the stuffing inside each skin – the eggplants should be full and heaving with the stuffing. Drizzle with extra olive oil, then bake for 15 minutes until the cheese is melty.

While the eggplant is baking, make the PG paste. In a food processor or blender, blitz the parsley, garlic, lemon zest and juice, oil and salt to form a fine paste, scraping down the sides with a spatula as needed.

To make the PG crumbs: in a heavy-based frying pan add a quarter-cup of PG paste, panko crumbs, butter and olive oil and cook over low heat, stirring frequently, until golden.

Stir crazy: making the PG crumbs. Photograph: Eugene Hyland/The Guardian
Sprinkling the PG crumbs on top of the stuffed roasted eggplant. Photograph: Eugene Hyland/The Guardian

Remove the tray from the oven. Sprinkle the PG crumbs on top, then the reserved shredded mozzarella. Crank the oven to the grill setting (if you have a gas oven, place the tray on the top shelf) and bake for five to 10 minutes more until the cheesy top is golden-brown.

Serve drizzled with a little olive oil and sprinkled with finely chopped parsley if you wish, plus crusty bread to mop up any sauce.

  • Alice Zaslavsky is the author of The Joy of Better Cooking, published by Murdoch Books in Australia (A$49.99) and the UK (£25), which is available as Better Cooking in Canada and the US, published by Appetite by Random House (US$35)

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