I will be the first to tell you that my ex-boyfriend and I were…less than a perfect match (there will be hoards lining up to tell you this fact second, third, and fourth). We didn’t so much end on a great note either, and I don’t miss the drama. What I do miss is his mother’s cooking. And his grandmother’s cooking.
See, I was not always the kind of girl who would swallow an oyster. In fact, my college roommates will regale you for hours with tales of my freshman year eating habits: namely, that I ate very little except chicken Caesar salads. Then came the ex-boyfriend, and, more importantly, the ex-boyfriend’s mother. The ex-boyfriend’s mother did not much care for blondes or picky eaters…unfortunately, I was both. After meeting me, and realizing that my blonde hair did not, in fact, mean that I was a total idiot (must’ve been a good day), she made it her personal goal over the next year and a half to make me eat as many of the foods I “didn’t like” as she possibly could. This meant, in large part, that she lied to me. Like the time she told me she was feeding me the dark meat of a chicken and it wound up being goat. You’d think I would’ve stopped eating at her house, but the fact is I ate dinner there more often than not.
Maybe if I hadn’t liked the majority of the things she forced (or coerced) me to eat, I would have a different opinion about the whole process. But I credit this family for introducing me to gnocchi, Pecorino, hummus, lamb, an Italian crepe lasagna that takes hours upon hours to make (trust me, I once helped make it) and whose name escapes me at the moment, goat cheese, homemade tomato sauce, and eggplant. And really, how can you be upset about all of that? I came to them a picky eater and left them as an adventurous one. An adventurous one with a really strong affinity for Italian food.
One of those convert-Kate meals was eggplant parm. Let’s pause for a minute while I reveal yet another oddity about myself: I don’t eat chicken parm. I have a mental block about tomato sauce and chicken…I’m not sure. I’ve never been able to wrap my head around the union of those flavors. So I wasn’t thrilled by the prospect of eggplant parm, especially since the process began with the breading and frying of a vegetable I “didn’t like.” Hilariously, you really can’t taste the eggplant at all in the fried version of eggplant parm, and needless to say, I liked it – primarily because I really like mozzarella cheese and homemade tomato sauce.
In the years since, I’ve learned to actually like eggplant. Not fried (though really, let’s be honest – I wouldn’t turn it down), but baked, or sauteed, or broiled. But I still love cheese, and I had leftover polenta and San Marzano tomatoes, and there was eggplant and fresh mozzarella in the fridge, and hey! There’s dinner!
This isn’t really traditional eggplant parm, because that wouldn’t be any fun. Instead, I layered thin blocks of polenta, homemade tomato sauce, fresh mozzarella cheese, baked eggplant, and baby spinach in a baking dish. And it was fabulous.
4 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp minced garlic
2 tbsp chopped onion
5 – 6 fresh basil leaves, chopped
2 – 3 San Marzano tomatoes, plus 1/3 cup of their juice
6 slices of a large eggplant
4 slices of fresh mozzarella
Handful of baby spinach
Several squares of cooked, solid polenta, sliced about 1/2 inch thick
Salt, pepper, and crushed red pepper flake to taste
Eggplant: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spread eggplant slices on a baking sheet, then brush both sides of eggplant slices with about 2 tbsp olive oil (total). Sprinkle with salt and pepper and bake for 20 – 25 minutes, until soft.
Sauce: In a small pot over medium heat, heat 1 tbsp olive oil. Once oil is hot, add garlic and onion and cook until onion is translucent. Add tomatoes and juice, breaking up tomatoes with a wooden spoon (you want them to thicken the sauce a little, but not be whole). Once tomatoes are heated through, add basil, salt, pepper, and red pepper flake to taste. Simmer until everything else is finished (there is no exact recipe for this, says ex-boyfriend’s Italian mother – this sauce is the reason I can’t handle canned tomato sauces).
Polenta: You have two choices here – either you’ve bought the polenta that’s already cooked and rolled into tube-form, or you’ve cooked your own and refrigerated it until it was hard (mine sat overnight from yesterday’s dinner, in a square tupperware container). Either way, you want to keep the slices fairly thin and completely intact, so be gentle. In a saucepan, heat the last of your oil over high heat. Once it’s hot, place a few slices of polenta in (they should sizzle) and cook until lightly browned. Flip, and cook until the other side is browned. Repeat the process until you’ve browned all your slices.
Assemble: I used a little, single serve baking dish for this, because it was just dinner for one this evening, folks. I started layering by covering the bottom of the dish with about half of the polenta slices, then 2 eggplant slices, a few pieces of baby spinach (half of whatever you determined a handful to be), 2 slices of mozzarella (broken up into small pieces), and about 1/3 of the sauce. Then I added the rest of the polenta, 2 more eggplant slices, the rest of spinach, another 1/3 of the sauce. I finished with the final 2 eggplant slices, the rest of the cheese (torn up), and the rest of the sauce. Then I microwaved (No, I did not bake it, and no, I am not ashamed of this. It was 7PM and I had already been to the gym and dammit it was time to eat!) the whole deal, with a lid (because it melts the cheese better, and also because I thought it might splatter everywhere) for one minute. If your microwave is less of a beast than mine, you might need longer – everything’s already cooked and hot, you’re just melting the mozzarella, really.
Have this with a glass of red wine, and tell me you’ve ever had a more delicious weeknight dinner.