Thursday, August 27, 2015

Grilled Eggplant Parmesan with Homemade Marinara Sauce

Once a while when my craving for tomato red sauce hits, the good ol' Eggplant Parmesan sounds like a perfect choice without overloading on carbs from pasta in a spaghetti pomodoro. A hearty staple of Italian Americana, "Eggplant Parm" usually comes breaded and fried - in some instances even drowning in pools of sauce, cheese, and grease when not done right. This delicious grilled version is my take on the traditional one, which is much lighter (and easier to make) and loud on both flavor and texture. The eggplant is beautifully grilled and charred, layered with melted mozzarella and homemade marinara, and finally topped with crisp, golden seasoned breadcrumbs. Forget the heavily breaded, slimy eggplant swimming in grease, because you won't miss that - and those calories - at all.

Now, if you are short on time, you can always use store-bought marinara and breadcrumbs. But making homemade tomato sauce and breadcrumbs is almost as fast as visiting the supermarket and infinitely better than the jarred/boxed stuff on the shelves. With basic pantry staples, you can control what goes into your own sauce, how chunky or smooth you like it, and also make bigger batches for later use. As for breadcrumbs... just like me, once you've made it for the first time you would probably feel silly for having actually purchased any in the past. It is essentially day-old, dried out bread that you can easily transform into tasty, golden, versatile crispy goodness in mere seconds at home.

Below are the recipes for each of the two. The tomato sauce and the breadcrumbs can be made ahead; once you've got those two down, assembling the Grilled Eggplant Parmesan is a breeze!
To prepare... 
For the classic Marinara Sauce:

I go heavy handed when seasoning with fresh herbs!
1 can (28 ounce) chopped tomatoes
1 1/2 tablespoons extra vigin olive oil
6 garlic cloves, minced
Pinch of red pepper flakes
1 sprig fresh basil
Fresh or dried herbs to taste (such as oregano and thyme) 
Pinch of sea salt
Pinch of sugar (optional)
A small handful of cherry tomatoes, halved (optional)

1. In a medium saucepan over medium heat, heat olive oil. Add garlic, red pepper flakes and any dried herbs and cook until fragrant. Pour in canned tomatoes and salt, bring to a boil on high heat, then reduce heat and let simmer, uncovered, for 20 minutes until the sauce is slightly thickened.

2. Stir in cherry tomatoes (if using). Add basil sprig (and any other fresh herbs) and submerge in sauce for the last 10 minutes. Taste sauce and add more seasoning as desired. Add some sugar if you find the sauce acidic. Discard basil, and remove sauce from heat.

For the Seasoned Parmesan Breadcrumbs:

2-3 pieces of stale white bread or plain rolls, roughly torn
1/4 cup grated Parmesan or Pecorino
1/2 teaspoon dried herbs or Italian seasoning
1/8 teaspoon garlic salt, or to taste
Drizzle of extra virgin olive oil
Several whole black peppercorns

1. Preheat oven to 150C/300F. Place all of the ingredients into a food processor and pulse to desired crumb size. Spread the crumbs evenly on a sheet pan and bake until crisp and just beginning to brown, about 5 minutes. Let cool and store in the refrigerator for up to one month.

For the Grilled Eggplant Parmesan:

1 Italian eggplant, sliced into 1/3-inch-thick rounds
Extra virgin olive oil
Pinch of sea salt
1 ball of fresh mozzarella, sliced into 1/4-inch-thick rounds
Fresh basil leaves, to garnish

1. Preheat grill. Brush eggplant rounds with olive oil on both sides and season with salt. Place eggplant on grill, flipping once, until softened and charred. Remove from heat.

2. Preheat oven to 190C/375F. Place the bottom layer of eggplant rounds on a parchment lined baking sheet. Top each with a small spoonful of tomato sauce (the more sauce there is the more likely the stacks will slip while baking) followed by a slice of mozzarella. Repeat to make a second layer. Bake until bubbly, about 20 minutes.

3. Top each stack with a heap of golden herbed breadcrumbs and garnish with fresh basil. Serve immdiately. Enjoy!

Sprinkling the seasoned breadcrumbs on top last ensures that they stay crispy and crunchy

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