When you think eggplant, the common dark purple Italian globe variety probably comes to mind; most likely, because that’s what can be readily found in most supermarkets nowadays. In fact, there are numerous varieties of eggplant, with varying colors, shapes, tastes, and textures. I can’t understand the monoculture mentality. Why limit consumers to the red delicious apple of eggplants, when there are tastier eggplant to be enjoyed? If you are looking for something other than your ordinary globe eggplant, chances are you will have to seek it out. Definitely worth the extra effort, and hopefully greater demand [for variety] will eventually turn into greater supply.
This is an Italian [Sicilian] heirloom variety called Beatrice (similar to Rosa Bianca); it has very sweet, mild flesh, a creamy texture, and very small seeds.
Now that we got that out of the way, the next question that needs to be answered “to salt or not to salt?” There are two schools of thought — one for salting and the other adamantly opposed. Some suggest that salting removes the bitterness in larger, older eggplant. If you have access to smaller locally-grown varieties that have been recently harvested, this is less of an issue. Others suggest that salting prevents the eggplant from absorbing excess oil during pan frying. The jury is still out on this one. Any thoughts?
My gut tells me that it is probably not necessary to salt when using fresher, smaller eggplant; otherwise, you may want to salt.
First, pan fry the eggplant slices until nice and golden brown [in a little olive oil]; this helps to develop flavor…
Then, layer in a skillet (or casserole)…
And, bake in the oven…
Lastly, dig in. Layers of roasted eggplant, red bell peppers, fresh basil, grated Pecorino and/or Parmesan, and homemade tomato sauce — simple, homey, and soul-satisfying, what’s not to like?
Sicilian Baked Eggplant
2 to 2 1/4 pounds small to medium-sized eggplant, cut into rounds, approximately 1/3-inch thick
2 large red bell peppers
Olive oil for pan frying
Tomato sauce (refer to recipe below)
3/4 to 1 cup grated cheese (such as Pecorino and/or Parmesan and/or mozzarella (or smoked mozzarella) or combination)
1 cup loosely packed fresh basil (~1 ounce), roughly torn into pieces
salt and pepper to taste
If salting the eggplant: Cut the eggplant into rounds, approximately 1/3-inch thick. Arrange a layer in a large colander and sprinkle lightly with salt. Repeat layering and salting until all the rounds have been salted. Weight them with a plate for 30 minutes to an hour. Then rinse the slices and pat dry, removing as much water as possible.
Pan frying the eggplant: Heat 1 to 1 1/2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet over moderate-high heat. When the oil is hot, but not smoking, arrange a single layer of eggplant slices in the pan. Cover and cook until the underside is golden, 3 to 5 minutes; turn the slices with a spatula, drizzle in additional oil as needed, and cover and continue cooking until golden and tender, 3 to 4 minutes longer on the other side. Remove the slices as they are done and set aside to cool. Repeat until all the eggplant has been pan fried.
Pan frying the red peppers: Remove the seeds and cut the peppers into wide strips. Lightly coat a skillet with olive oil (a teaspoon or two). When hot, add the red peppers and sauté ~7-8 minutes, stirring occasionally, until tender and lightly charred in spots.
Assembling the dish: Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Spoon about 1/2 cup of the tomato sauce into the bottom of a casserole or high-sided skillet (~10-12 inches in diameter). Arrange a layer of eggplant slices and red peppers on top. Top with a little more tomato sauce, about 1/2 cup. Sprinkle lightly with shredded cheese, and scatter torn basil leaves on top. Repeat, with a second layer of eggplant and red peppers. Spread the top with another ½ cup tomato sauce. Finish with a final sprinkling of Parmigianino and torn basil leaves. Cover with aluminum foil. Bake for 20 minutes. Remove the foil and bake for another 15 minutes.
Note: You can assemble the dish in advance and refrigerate. Just bring to room temperature before baking.
1 28-ounce can of tomatoes
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 medium white onion minced
3 garlic cloves minced
1 teaspoon fresh thyme
red pepper flakes to taste
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Heat the olive oil in a medium pot over medium-low heat. Add the onion and sauté until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and sauté for 30 seconds. Add the tomatoes, fresh thyme, red pepper flakes, and season with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. Bring to a boil over high heat, reduce to a simmer a continue cooking until it thickens, 15-20 minutes.