Big Girls, Test Kitchen: Meatless Monday Deconstructed Eggplant Parm
DISH: Eggplant Parmesan Rigatoni
TYPE: Simplified Classic
MAIN INGREDIENT: Eggplant, Pasta, Mozzarella
Having grown up with many a vegetarian at our high school potluck table, I became very accustomed to eating serving upon serving of Eggplant Parmesan. When dining en masse, this vegetarian meal is a perfectly serviceable option, especially for vehement carnivores, who seem to think few other vegetarian dishes can pass as a filling entrée.
I dabbled in tofu and seitan and other veg-friendly vehicles. But when it came to group dining, I too fell prey to the ever-prevalent eggplant parm. I didn’t really know any better. And I also didn’t know enough to realize how much work went into this dish, and that I could have just tossed some spaghetti with egg and cheese and called it a dinner.
There are at least four plates or bowls involved. There is frying. There is the pot it takes to do the frying, the one it takes to make the sauce, and the dish in which the eggplant is finally arranged and baked, where it becomes one with its Pyrex interior, until a Brillo pad takes charge after a night of soaking in the sink.
In short: eggplant parm is a pain in the ass. And in addition to a sink full of dirty dishes, it leaves you with an even greater margin for error. But it’s also, as the carnivore consumer reports indicate, undeniably fatty and delicious.
Yet, I haven’t been able to bring myself to make eggplant parm since inhabiting my small kitchen. The dredging assembly line alone would take up my entire counter top, and it just never seemed worth the hassle.
Recently though, I was in possession of an ailing eggplant in my vegetable drawer just begging to be used, and the craving for that old high school standby struck. I decided to do everything in my power to recreate the textures and flavors of eggplant parm, without resorting to the breading and frying and baking. The base inspiration was another high school favorite: Rigatoni alle Melanzane, which I ate almost bi-weekly with my friend Carolyn at her favorite upper west side Italian restaurant. In it, the eggplant is cooked down in a rich tomato sauce until it becomes perfectly tender and velvety, and then tossed together with fresh rigatoni, until each tube is invaded by a little bit of the saucy vegetable.
To add the other traditional elements of eggplant parm, I topped my version of Rigatoni alle Melanzane with tiny balls of fresh mozzarella (piedini), which melt between the pieces of pasta, and a healthy spoonful of toasted panko, to give the dish its necessary crunch. The end result may not have been traditional in any respect. But with a little extra parmesan, and a tiny bit of imagination, this pasta certainly serves up the same small kitchen satisfaction, and you won’t miss the mess.
From my kitchen, deconstructing and decomplicating my faves, to yours,
Phoebe, THE QUARTER-LIFE COOK
Eggplant Parmesan Rigatoni
Makes 4 servings
1 medium eggplant, cut into 1-inch cubes
1 Vidalia or Spanish onion, diced
2 garlic cloves, minced
¼ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
2 cups marinara sauce or tomato puree*
1 plum tomato, seeded and diced
1 pound rigatoni (I used meze)
10 basil leaves, torn
½ pound perlinis (or chopped fresh mozzarella)
¼ cup panko breadcrumbs
¼ cup finely grated Parmesan
Bring a large pot of salted water to boil.
In the meantime, set a large cast iron skillet over medium-high heat, and add enough olive oil to coat the bottom of the pan, about 2 tablespoons. Add the eggplant, onion, and 1 teaspoon salt and sauté, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes, until the eggplant is tender, but not falling apart. Add the garlic and red pepper and cook until fragrant, about 2 more minutes.
Pour the tomato sauce and chopped tomatoes over the eggplant mixture and stir to combine. Simmer gently until the acidity of the tomatoes has burned off, and the eggplant is soft and falling apart, about 10 minutes. Taste for seasoning and add more salt as necessary.
In a small non-stick pan, toast the breadcrumbs with a little bit of olive oil until golden brown, about 3 minutes. Set aside.
Cook the pasta according to package directions until al dente. Drain and add to the pan with the pasta sauce. Add the basil leaves (reserving one or two for garnish) and the perlinis (or chopped mozzarella) and toss to combine.
Spoon the pasta into serving bowls and top each with a tablespoon of breadcrumbs and Parmesan. Garnish with torn basil leaves, and serve immediately.