In my early twenties, I tried briefly to become a pescetarian (that’s a a vegetarian who consumes seafood, not a pesky vegetarian, though I understand your confusion). College was a heady time for such bold lifestyle decisions, and Kyle and I decided to embark on this quasi-political meat-deprivation adventure together. We made sweeping proclamations to our friends and family that we would never eat meat again, bragging about how socially conscious we were and how healthy we would soon be while shoveling fried fish sandwiches and cheese-covered-anythings down our gullets to convince ourselves we didn’t miss bacon.
We worked at the Macaroni Grill then, a chain Italian restaurant that had just opened in our small college town. There were so many menu items that we couldn’t try while in training, but we hardly missed meat once we discovered the Eggplant Parmesan: a crunchy-lidded, red-sauce soaked, cheese-covered piece of decadence that essentially typified our own views on vegetarianism. The egg parm kept us in the lifestyle a full three months longer than we probably would have stayed otherwise, breaking down only for Sonic cheeseburgers the day Kyle’s grandma Thelma died (kind of macabre, but the two events have always been inextricably linked in our minds. This is about sharing).
In the years since, I’ve discovered what a delicious ingredient eggplant is and how many iterations of this recipe abound: fried, layered, baked, etc. Even Macaroni Grill changed the way they made their egg parm, and for this reason I decided to recreate the original. I’ve been toying with this recipe for a while, frying the eggplant before baking it in a sauce in the first few incarnations; however, after talking with a former co-worker/best friend (Hi, Jenna!) who missed this dish as much as I did, I decided to try baking the eggplant with olive oil. Talk about epiphanic eggplant. I discovered that the flavor was not compromised, that the mess was significantly less (fewer dishes, happier homes), and that it made the final product a smidge healthier. I never looked back.
This recipe is definitely an homage to the egg parm from Macaroni Grill circa 2005. I use my homemade red sauce to create a succulent interpretation of an Italian classic. You don’t even need to be a pescatarian or a self-righteous twentysomething to enjoy. Serve it with your finest house Chianti (this is a Macaroni Grill in-joke, not a Silence of the Lambs reference, but, again, I understand your confusion).
- 1 large eggplant
- ½ tsp salt
- 2 eggs, beaten
- 1 cup breadcrumbs (plain or Italian seasoned)
- 1 tsp garlic salt
- Olive oil
- 2 ½ cups red sauce, divided
- 1 ½ cups shredded mozzarella
- 1 cup shredded parmesan
- 3 tbsp butter
- ½ cup fresh basil leaves, julienned
- Thin spaghetti noodles
- Prep time: 1 hour 45 minutes
- Cook time: 45 minutes
- Servings: 4 people
- Peel the eggplant and cut into 1 centimeter circles. Line a cookie sheet with towels and lay the eggplant pieces on top. Sprinkle the salt over the eggplant and let sit for an hour. This draws out some of the moisture, preventing the baked eggplant from becoming soggy.
- After an hour, take a towel and blot the water and salt from the eggplant, drying the pieces completely. In one dish (I use a glass pie pan), beat the two eggs. In another dish, combine breadcrumbs and garlic salt. If using plain breadcrumbs, you may also add dry Italian seasoning, (up to a tsp) if you like. Prepare a deep baking dish for the eggplant. I find I have to use 2 9 x 13 glass casserole dishes, but if you have something big enough to fit the eggplant in a single layer, use that. Spray the pan with non-stick cooking spray. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
- Taking the eggplant pieces one at a time, first dip in the beaten egg, coating completely. Then dip into the breadcrumbs, making sure they are again coated. Place in prepared pan. Continue until all the eggplant is breaded. Drizzle prepared eggplant with olive oil. Bake the eggplant for 25-30 minutes, turning once at the 15 minute mark. The eggplant is done when browned and fork-tender. The fork should penetrate easily, but the eggplant should not fall apart.
- Temporarily remove the eggplant from the pan and place a spoonful of sauce at the bottom, enough to coat. Return the eggplant pieces, and spoon a dollop of sauce onto each piece, about a tablespoon’s worth. Sprinkle the shredded mozzarella over the eggplant and then the parmesan. Cut the butter into pea-sized pieces and use them to dot the top of the dish.
- Place a pot of water on the stove to boil according to the pasta directions. Add a liberal amount of salt (I use a tablespoon).
- Return the pan to the oven and cook for another 15 minutes. The cheese should be melted, slightly browned on top, and the sauce bubbling. Remove the eggplant from the oven and sprinkle with basil.
- Cook the pasta while the eggplant rests. Once the pasta is done, plate the dish by creating a small pile of noodles topped with some of the reserved sauce and 2-3 pieces of eggplant. Serve immediately.