The holiday season is happening right in front of our eyes and I for one am happy to see the season surround me with its warm welcoming moments.
I love the aroma of baking spices and cookies as I prepare for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. This is a very religious holiday celebration for Italians and the festivities run almost daily in Italia and are just as traditionally celebrated by Italian-Americans in the U.S.
Today I am sharing a recipe as an early gift to my readers that I love to prepare in all seasons when I can find fresh Italian eggplant.
This traditional dish using my family’s favorite all season vegetable, the eggplant is perfect for winter dinners and celebrations along with other food offerings. There are many variations on this classic Italian dish, many of which involve breading and frying the eggplant slices and using mozzarella cheese in excess.
Me and my famiglia prefer this preparation as it celebrates the eggplants true flavors and in a much lighter and healthier style. This dish also freezes well therefore, you can prepare this in advance for your holiday gatherings this season.
melanzane alla parmigiana
about 5-8 fresh Italian eggplant (black-skinned, smaller and teardrop shape)
1 medium batch of homemade marinara sauce (warm)
fresh basil leaves, cleaned and trimmed
freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano cheese
homemade toasted garlic & parsley bread crumbs*
salt and pepper to taste
optional add-ins: béchamel sauce or 8-10 oz. container of fresh whole milk ricotta cheese
* Make toasted breadcrumbs with day-old rustic bread: place bread pieces in food processor and pulse until small crumbs are formed. Place bread crumbs, small amount of chopped garlic and parsley leaves to personal taste and a drizzle of olive oil in non-stick skillet and place on medium heat, tossing crumbs often so they do not burn and are coated evenly with the seasonings.
Remove when toasted golden brown and let cool. Use these for many different uses like topping steam veggies, pasta dishes or sprinkle on a salad for some extra crunch.
Wash and dry the eggplants and peel most of the skin off (leave small strips for flavor and visual appeal.) Slice the eggplant on lengthwise into 1/4 thick slices and place on a parchment covered baking tray.
Fill trays with the slices and season with salt, pepper and a light drizzle of olive oil over the top. Bake in the oven until the slices are almost fork-tender. Remove and place on a large platter to cool a bit.
Assemble your laying items (the marinara, fresh basil, grated parmigiana, and more items if desired.) I used a light dose of béchamel sauce to add a touch of creaminess for a winter presentation.
Using a large oven casserole baking dish, drizzle a small amount of olive oil and spoon in some of the sauce at the bottom of the baking dish. Start laying the eggplant slices in one direction into the dish until the sauce is covered.
Spoon a bit of the sauce and sprinkle a good amount of the parmigiana, layer some fresh basil and add any other additional items at this point (place small spoonfuls of the béchamel or dollop small spoonfuls of ricotta.)
Continue in this layering fashion, starting again with the eggplant slices and so on. Remember to place the eggplant in the opposite direction (side to side vs. top to bottom in the baking dish) as you create new layers. This makes it easier to slice when baked, the slices will not slide all over and lose their form.
Once the layers are complete, finish off the top with a good amount of the marinara, grated parmigiana cheese and to finish, the toasted bread crumbs which will create a golden crispy topping at the finish.)
Loosely cover the baking dish with aluminum foil and place in a preheated 425 degree fahrenheit oven for about 25-35 minutes, remove the foil about 10-15 minutes before end of the cooking time. Continue to bake until the golden and bubbly on the top (cooking times can vary depending on the size and depth of your baking dish and the heat intensity of your oven.)
Remove from the oven and place on counter top to cool a bit (do not slice into while steaming hot as it will disassemble easily making for poor presentation.)
Serve this immediately with additional grated parmigiana and fresh basil if desired. I love to eat this with crusty bread and a fresh vegetable salad (assorted lettuce greens, arugula, heart of palm, artichoke hearts, tomato, cukes and olives) with my personal dressing of olive oil, homemade red wine vinegar and salt to taste.
Holiday Tip: In honor of giving and receiving, please make a difference this year by donating what you can to a non-profit or cause that you and your family believe in. Make your children aware that helping others first is really what matters not just this season but every day.
Don’t forget the many individuals and families in your own local community that will do without food and gifts this year.
Check with your local churches and support groups to find out how your family can help make someone else feel special too this holiday season.
Gift-giving can be very affordable by making food gifts this year. Homemade cookies, sweet breads and cakes make wonderful holiday gifts for neighbors, friends and providers (babysitters, teachers and more) who work hard all year for you and your family.
Note: Photography provided by Annette L. Venditti