Order the cannoli! Put the biscotti in the oven! Chill the prosecco! St. Joseph’s Feast Day is just around the corner! Across Italy and certainly throughout Sicily, as well as in many Italian-American households and communities around our own country, next Monday, St. Joseph’s Feast Day, will be marked by special religious services, street fairs, parades, and celebratory dinners. There’s even a special pastry (zeppola) and dish (fava beans) to be served in this Saint’s honor. So, why all the hoopla?
To start, and to eliminate any possible confusion with the many other St. Josephs, I’m speaking about Joseph, the carpenter who, along with Mary, raised the Christ Child, according to Christian beliefs. Perhaps because of its close proximity and relationship with the Vatican for so many centuries, the Church has exercised considerable control over Italy. Each town, village, city, district, in fact every community of any size, has at least one patron saint. And Saint Joseph is one very popular patron saint. Today, he is the Patron Saint of Sicily and that is the reason for the celebrations on Monday — but it wasn’t always that way.
According to legend, sometime during the Middles Ages, Sicily was struck by drought. As the earth dried and crops withered, famine became a very real possibility. Fava beans alone are all that kept the people from starvation. They prayed to St. Joseph, beseeching him to intercede on their behalf and to ask his “Son” to end the drought. In return, the people promised to hold a feast every year in his honor. The rains came, the drought ended, and mass starvation was averted. The grateful Sicilians proclaimed Saint Joseph their Patron Saint and his Feast Day is marked by celebrations to this very day.
Now, lacking both fava beans and the skills of a pasty chef, I decided to take a different path to honor this Saint. Since eggplant is used so often in Sicilian cuisine, I thought an eggplant dish would be appropriate. So, today’s recipe is eggplant parmesan, parmigiana di melanzane.
In recent years, the 3 most common parmigiana dishes — veal, chicken, and eggplant — have come under fire somewhat. Let’s face it, they aren’t exactly low-cal, by any measure. And, to be honest, it is only in the past few years that I’ve attempted to make them a bit lighter. In this case, where I used to fry the breaded slices of eggplant, I now bake them. In place of a meat sauce, I now use a marinara. Granted, you still won’t see this dish listed on any menu as the “Dieter’s Special”, but you will enjoy a lighter dish that is every bit as enjoyable as the more traditional preparations.
One further note deserves mention. During a recent post in which I shared instructions for making goat cheese, I asked if anyone knew of a nearby buffalo herd, implying that I’d use their milk to make mozzarella. Bufala mozzarella, by the way, is the most prized of all mozzarella cheeses. Judy@Savoring Today left a comment stating that bufala mozzarella, made in Italy, was available at, get this, Costco, of all places! Within days, I was at Costco and the parmigiana di melanzane pictured in today’s post is the result. Thank you, Judy!
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Eggplant Parmesan Recipe
- 6 – 8 cups marinara sauce (recipe below)
- 2 eggplant, about 2 1/2 lbs. total
- 3/4 cup all-purpose flour
- 4 – 5 cups bread crumbs, more may be required
- 3 tbsp fresh parsley, chopped
- 1 tbsp Italian seasoning
- 1 tsp garlic powder
- 3 eggs
- 2 tbsp milk
- 1 lb. fresh mozzarella, thinly sliced or shredded
- 1 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese, pecorino romano may be substituted
- salt & pepper
To prepare the eggplant
- Create a breading station. In a large dish or flat-bottomed container, add the flour. Add the eggs and mild to a second such container and mix until well-combined. Add to the 3rd container the bread crumbs, parsley, Italian seasoning, and garlic powder. Mix to thoroughly combine.
- Pre-heat oven to 400˚.
- Slice the eggplant, lengthwise, into 1/2 inch slices.
- Coat each eggplant slice with flour, shake off excess, and dip into egg wash. Allow excess to drip off before dipping into the bread crumb mixture to completely coat each slice. Place on a cooking rack that has been sprayed with cooking spray. Continue until all slices are breaded. You will need to use 2 racks or to bake 2 batches.
- Place eggplant-filled cooling rack on top of a large baking sheet and bake in pre-heated, 400˚ oven for 15 minutes or until very lightly browned.
Assembly & cooking instructions – family style
- Use a few ladles of sauce to coat the bottom of a large baking dish.
- Add eggplant slices to form a layer in the baking dish. Place a few ladles of sauce evenly across the breaded slices. Apply 1/3 of the mozzarella in an even layer across the eggplant. Finish the layer by sprinkling 1/3 of the parmesan cheese on top.
- Repeat step 2 twice, creating 3 layers in all and alternating the direction of each layer’s slices.
- Bake in 400˚ oven for 30 to 40 minutes, until the dish is bubbly and the cheese has cooked/browned to your liking.
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If prepared as indicated — and pictured — above, the result is more suitable for a “family style” dinner and resembles a tray of lasagna. If you like, you can easily “build” individual servings using 3 slices of eggplant and covering each layer with the sauce and cheese as above but keeping each serving separate from the others. Similarly, you can slice the eggplant into 1/2 inch disks, rather than lengthwise, and create smaller sized portions, perfect for use as primi piatti.
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This marinara isn’t meant to be simmered for hours. The resulting, fresh-tasting sauce adds another flavor element to this vegetarian dish.
- 3 tbsp olive oil
- 1/2 – 1 tsp red pepper flakes (optional)
- 1 large onion, coarsely chopped
- 2 carrots, coarsely chopped
- 2 celery stalks, coarsely chopped
- 6 garlic cloves, smashed
- 2 – 3 tbsp tomato paste
- 1 can (28 oz) diced tomatoes
- 1 can (28 oz) crushed tomatoes
- 1/2 cup dry red wine (optional)
- 3 tbsp fresh parsley, chopped fine
- 1 tbsp dried marjoram
- salt & pepper
- Place onion, carrots, celery, and garlic into a food processor and process until finely chopped. Alternately, finely chop the vegetables and garlic by hand.
- Heat oil in a sauce pan over med-high heat. Add the optional red pepper flakes and sauté for about a minute.
- Add the finely chopped ingredients, season with salt & pepper, and cook until liquid has evaporated and they start to caramelize.
- Add the tomato paste and continue to cook for about 2 more minutes.
- Add the tomatoes, wine, parsley, marjoram, and stir to combine. Season with salt & pepper, bring to a boil, and reduce to a simmer.
- Continue to simmer until sauce has thickened and deepened in color, about 60 minutes, on average. Check for seasoning and reserve for use in your recipe.
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