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Eggplant Parmigiana: Sophia’s Choice

March 31, 2015

When I heard Sophia Loren was visiting Australia in April as the guest of honour for a gala fundraiser, I immediately went shopping. For eggplants.

She was famously quoted as saying, “Spaghetti can be eaten most successfully if you inhale it like a vacuum cleaner” and “Everything you see I owe to spaghetti” but to me, she’s all eggplant. She claims to know at least a dozen ways to cook them, courtesy of her grandmother. Now that’s impressive.

Italian actress Sophia Loren

I could almost taste the eggplant/aubergine parmigiana (aka melanzane alla parmigiana) I was about to make. It’s a time-consuming dish, with successive layers of pre-cooked, thin eggplant slices, tomato sauce and two types of cheese: meltable (usually mozzarella) and parmesan.

I was short of time and dusted the eggplant slices with flour – without egging and crumbing them before frying. I’ve always done the three-way dust, dip and coat method and usually set aside a hefty amount of time to do it … like annual holidays. Does anyone else make it this way, or am I the only one with too much time on my hands?

In her 1971 cookbook Eat with Me (full of fabulous fashion as well as the world’s biggest wooden salad servers), Sophia just fries them. As does Marcella Hazan in her Classic Italian Cookbook. In Italian Food, Elizabeth David dusts them with flour before frying, and Italy’s most successful cookbook, Silver Spoon suggests frying, then spreading with beaten egg (making it a bit omelettey I think). And finally, Pellegrino Artusi in his Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well (published 1891) goes one better: flouring before frying, then topping with beaten egg, tomato sauce, one spoon of parmesan, two spoons of breadcrumbs.

eggplant watercolour

Ambra, circa 1980 – the ‘eggplant’ period

Then there’s the question: to peel or not to peel the eggplant. The peelers are in the minority, but still, peeling and discarding that gorgeous shiny purple skin is out of the question. It’s the essence of the vegetable.

Not to mention that without the skin, the eggplant slices just look like disappointed kitchen sponges.

Another curiosity is the dish’s name. Many people (including Jamie Oliver) think it’s a northern Italian dish and ‘parmigiana’ refers to the cheese or Parma, the city. But food historians think it’s from Sicily, where ‘palmigiana’ means shutters and describes the way the eggplant slices are overlapped. There are further theories that Sicilians have a problem pronouncing the “l” and it became ‘parmigiana’.


parmigianaEither way, Sophia gets the last word: ‘There are some vegetable dishes, ways of doing aubergines, pimientos, and so on, that sometimes fill me with an enthusiasm that I am unable to work up over the main course.”

Follow the step-by-step Parmigiana video recipe on the excellent Italian food site Giallo Zafferano

For non-Italian speakers, Italian American chef Lidia Bastianichs recipe is the closest I’ve found to the one I make.

Parmigiana photo by Joyosity
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29 comments

  1. I love those quotes. Inhale like a vacuum cleaner? – I must definitely try that one although perhaps with an ambulance standing by! Eat with me sounds a scream. I love 70s cookbooks those lurid kitsch photos of food that looks as if its been covered in nail varnish to make it gleam for the cameras.


    • Sophia’s got a way with words, doesn’t she? I haven’t read the entire ‘Eat with Me’ cookbook, but have seen enough of it to know that it is probably a collectors’ item. It was probably the first celebrity cookbook.


  2. Yum!!! This is what we will be eating for Easter lunch (luscious large eggplants 50 cents each at the farm-gate stall down the road from me – one of the few benefits of having left the inner city!)


    • Good stuff Verena. Wish I had a farm-gate stall near me too, alas inner-city living doesn’t give me that. Hope you’re well..


  3. Brava Ambra — I chuckled through your narrative and I love the subject matter. Now I am hanging my head in shame because no self-respecting Italian would admit to not at least once in her lifetime attempting Eggplant Parmigiana– but to you I’m making this confession. But I’m doing so because that fact is soon to be corrected!! You’ve given me the kick in the rear impetus to do it. I may do the three step process you did and then I could always check out Giallo Zafferano and see what appeals. Mille grazie!!


    • Thanks Marisa Franca. Whichever process you use, I’m sure you’ll do justice to it. I think the longer way has an edge on the other: the breadcrumbs seem to give the dish more body. If you make it the quicker way, I recommend not eating straight away, but perhaps re-heat gently. It seems to not get as soggy. Buon appetito!


  4. What a great post – totally got my taste buds whirring!
    Love the visual of peeled aubergines looking like ‘disappointed kitchen sponges’. I completely agree about having to keep that gorgeous purple skin.
    And what a lovely watercolour …


    • Thanks. Ah, yes, the watercolour. It’s amazing what the archives throw up sometimes.


  5. Wonderful discussion of eggplant and I love Sophia – who wouldn’t.


    • Thanks Jovina. I must admit my mouth was watering as I was writing it. Sophia sounds like a great cook too.


  6. Oh my goodness… I LOVE your art Ambra, wow, wow, wow! And I love this recipe… and I also happen to love Sophia! xox


    • Thanks so much Liz. There’s certainly a blast from the past in my post: art, food and an Italian icon!


  7. “Everything you see I owe to spaghetti” – damn, that didn’t seem to work out with me in quite the specific places it did with Sophia! Lovely post – one of my favourite foods and such a delicious way to serve it.


    • Hah, I think Sophia might have uttered that quote when she was quite a bit younger, but still, at 80, she’s doing pretty well. I put it down to genes.


  8. I love frying egg plant. The trouble is I tend to eat it as quick as I fry it, leaving none for the pasta


    • I’m guilty of that too. Love eggplant cooked any way.


  9. My late Italian father told me that where he came from in Italy, they referred to eggplant as the poor-man’s fish. And when I cook it as a parmagiana – I always think of that apt description. It’s a great way to serve eggplant. thanks for the reminder with this post.


    • It’s a pleasure, and it’s great that it brings back memories for you too.


  10. That Silver Spoon book is the worst book I have ever read on Italian cooking. Sometimes Mr Oliver gets so many things wrong! It is a wonderful classic dish and I have eaten it both ways, skinless and skinned and am always happy, so long as no- one gets stingy with the olive oil. Any puritan version should be banned.


    • The Silver Spoon certainly divides people! I don’t own a copy as I have so many other Italian cookbooks (including a Pellegrino once owned by my grandfather). I’ve just flicked through it occasionally to compare recipes.


  11. Great post, love the little historic foray!


    • Thanks very much. I had fun exploring the different ways of making this dish. It’s a minefield!


  12. Couldn’t possibly make a disappointed sponge of an eggplant – they must remain glossy! One of my favourite dishes and always evokes a distant memory of eating it in a windblown beach cafe on a wintry night in Positano (which sounds utterly pretentious but was utterly wonderful). Grazie a te!


    • Pleasure signor Bisset. Yes, glossy’s the go, no matter where you are.


  13. I know it’s only time for breakfast, but I could go for some of this right now! I blame you…


    • Thanks. Just pretend you’re here on Australian Eastern Standard Time and it’s dinnertime. Easy!


      • Is that where you are? It’s going to be hard for me to have you cook that for me if you’re in Australia. 🙂


  14. Love your melanzana! I had an ‘eggplant period’ too. In Northern Puglia, because zucchine are so plentiful everyone is practically giving them away, this dish is also made with them. My favorite parmigiana is made with a combination of melanzane and zucchine. We make it the ‘hard’ way you described but the effort is worth it! Ciao, Cristina


    • Love the idea of using zucchine for this dish. Must try it. Thanks very much for following.



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