At this time of year, the Napa Farmers Market is brimming with all varieties of eggplant. This is the season to enjoy eggplant, and my favorite way is the northern Italian version of the classic eggplant parmigiana.
In addition to the most common eggplant variety, the large purple Globe, there is a white type the size of a goose egg; the white and mauve ‘Rosa Bianca,’ and the elongated, slim Asian types. From now into October, they will be firm, sweet and meaty, with none of the bitterness you find in winter eggplant.
When you have such fresh eggplants to cook with, you don’t need to salt them. Salting removes water and any bitterness, and it keeps the eggplant from absorbing too much oil. Eggplant is like a sponge. If you are in doubt, taste a small piece. The flavor should be slightly sweet, not bitter or astringent, and the texture should be like a soft apple.
When selecting eggplant, look for shiny ones that feel heavy for their size. If they are lightweight, have bruises or feel spongy, leave them behind.
Store eggplant in your refrigerator’s vegetable bin or in a cool area in your home. They originated in the Asian tropics and don’t like the cold. Try to cook and eat them within a day or two of purchase. You can always roast them and store them, covered, in the refrigerator for use in a pasta sauce, dip or salad.
There’s the classic southern Italian eggplant parmigiana, which can be rich and heavy. The typical recipe calls for thinly sliced eggplant, breaded and fried, and lots of melting gooey cheese.
My version from the north is lighter, fairly easy and quick if you have tomato sauce on hand. This northern recipe celebrates two of the best products from Parma: prosciutto and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. I roast the thick, meaty slices of eggplant instead of frying them, so you won’t feel guilty about having seconds.
Serve the eggplant parmigiana as a first course, a main dish for a light meal or a side dish with grilled lamb. Provide plenty of crusty bread and open a California Sangiovese.
Chef Demo: Join Derek Bromley and Greg Cole for an Ohm coffee workshop and demonstration of espresso crème brulée at the Napa Farmers Market on Saturday, Sept. 30, at 11 a.m. The demonstration is free, and a recipe will be provided.
2 large purple Globe eggplants
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 cup tomato sauce (your favorite recipe)
8 thin slices prosciutto de Parma
Freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup grated Parmigiano- Reggiano cheese
1-1/2 Tbsp. unsalted butter, plus more for the baking dish
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees Fahrenheit.
Remove the cap and stem of the eggplants and slice ½-inch thick. Lightly salt the slices and let stand for 30 minutes. (You may omit the salting if you have farmers’ market-fresh eggplant.) Rinse and pat dry.
Brush both sides of each slice with olive oil and place on a baking sheet. Bake until golden brown, about 15 minutes. Turn and bake until the other side is golden, 10 to 15 minutes more. Reduce the oven temperature to 325 degrees Fahrenheit.
Butter a shallow 8- by 11-inch baking dish. Add a couple of tablespoons of tomato sauce, then a layer of eggplant. Cover the eggplant with 4 slices of the prosciutto, half of the remaining tomato sauce, some black pepper and half of the cheese. Repeat the layering, ending with the cheese. Dot the top with butter and bake until hot throughout and golden-brown, 30 to 45 minutes. Let rest for 5 minutes before serving.
Serves 2 to 4, depending on the rest of the meal