The first time I had eggplant parmesan was about 10 years ago, the night before a 30k race when several fellow runners and I carb-loaded at an Italian restaurant. There weren’t a lot of vegetarian options, so I went for the eggplant dish. It was divine—one that left me craving it long afterwards. And I had a fantastic race the next morning, even finishing so far ahead of the time I suggested my family and friends be there that they hadn’t even arrived yet when I crossed the finish line. The only thing I had done differently than other races and longer training runs was the eggplant parm. That had to be it!
It wasn’t until later that I found out this dish is so good, in part, because of the breading, frying (eggplant absorbs oil like crazy), mozzarella, and of course, the namesake parmesan. It was definitely not something that could be enjoyed often and I can probably count on one hand the times I’ve had it since. And no, I didn’t experience the same fantastic results when I indulged in it the night before a race the next time–unfortunately.
I tend to over-shop at the farmers’ market and
sometimes oftentimes need to improvise in order to incorporate everything that looks so good on display, but turns out to be way too much for two people. That’s how this lighter, but still crave-able, version of an Italian restaurant classic came about.
A big pail of roma/plum tomatoes was made into several batches of the fantastic arrabbiata sauce blogged about recently.
My plan was to freeze it all, but I knew it would pair so well with the abundance of eggplant on hand, so I set one jar aside. Baking rather than frying the eggplant would certainly help the calorie count, plus I decided to use 2% cottage cheese in place of mozzarella. You could also use 1%, but I don’t know if fat-free would work. The pasta is optional—leaving it out results in fewer servings, but by no means decreases the feeling of gastronomic satisfaction. Enjoy and cue the Mambo Italiano!
Baked Eggplant Parmesan
2 medium eggplants (a total of about 2 pounds), peeled and sliced into ½ inch thick rounds
1 teaspoon kosher or sea salt
¾ cup white whole wheat flour
Salt & freshly ground black pepper, to taste (it will be used several different times)
2 eggs, lightly beaten with 2 tablespoons water
2 cups panko bread crumbs (whole wheat, if you can find it)
1 ½ cups 1% or 2% cottage cheese (I used 2%)
1 clove garlic, minced
1 teaspoon dried parsley, or a tablespoon freshly chopped parsley
½ teaspoon dried oregano, or half a tablespoon fresh
12 oz. whole wheat spaghetti, cooked al dente (optional)
1 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil
Fresh basil leaves, for garnish, chopped if large
Place peeled & sliced eggplant in a colander and sprinkle with a teaspoon of kosher salt. Let sit for 30 minutes (this extracts any bitter flavor—some argue it isn’t is really necessary, but if you have the extra half hour, what can it hurt?). Rinse eggplant slices and pat dry with clean kitchen towels.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Lightly spray two jelly roll pans with olive oil cooking spray.
Set up an assembly line of three shallow bowls. Into the first one, place the white whole wheat flour.
Into the second bowl, lightly beat the two eggs with two tablespoons water.
Into the third, mix the panko bread crumbs with ¼ cup parmesan and a little salt and pepper.
Dredge eggplant slices in flour mixture, then dip in egg, and finally in panko to coat. Place on prepared jelly roll pans. Spray tops of eggplant with olive oil cooking spray. Bake for 15 minutes, flip eggplant slices and spray again with olive oil cooking spray, rotate pan, and cook 15 more minutes, until golden brown. Keep oven on at 375 degrees F—you’ve got more baking to do.
Meanwhile, mix cottage cheese, ¼ cup parmesan, garlic, parsley, oregano, and salt & pepper. Set aside.
Pour about 1 cup arrabbiata sauce or other red sauce into bottom of a 13 x 9 baking dish. Layer half the baked eggplant slices over sauce (you may need to crowd them in). Put a dollop of the cottage cheese mixture on each eggplant slice. Drizzle about ¾ cup sauce over this. Repeat with remaining eggplant slices and cottage cheese mixture. Drizzle another ¾ cup sauce over the top. Finish with a sprinkle of the last ½ cup parmesan. Cover with foil and bake for 25 minutes, rotating pan half way through cooking time. Uncover and cook another 10 minutes until cheese is melted and things are bubbling. Turn oven to broil, and cook an additional 3 to 5 minutes (watch it carefully and remove earlier, if necessary), until the cheese is lightly browned.
If serving with pasta, while the eggplant combo is baking, bring a big pot of generously salted water to a rolling boil. Cook whole wheat spaghetti to al dente. Drain, return to pan, and drizzle a little (about a teaspoon) olive oil over it and toss using tongs (this will keep it from sticking together). Cover so that it keeps warm until ready to serve.
Toward the end of the eggplant mixture cooking time, heat remaining arrabbiata sauce in a small saucepan and keep warm.
To serve, place a pile of spaghetti (if using) on each plate, and top with a generous portion of the eggplant/sauce/cheese concoction. Drizzle with the warmed sauce and garnish with fresh basil leaves. Serves 6-8 if you include the pasta, 4-6 servings without, depending on the size appetites you’re accommodating.