Eggplant is one of my favorite vegetables and I buy them with surprising regularity, given the fact that I am the only member of the family who actively likes them. The Critic will tolerate moussaka, as will Big Brother on a good day. Little Brother will sometimes eat my leftovers on the rare occasion there are any, but even I have to agree it rarely looks appetising when you whizz an eggplant dish into baby food. But I love picking out a firm, glossy, purple eggplant. I love the nuttiness of its flesh. And I love how soft and sweet it becomes when you cook it until it collapses in a delicate mound.
What I don't love is how hard it is to reach that perfectly cooked state. Cook it too little and it remains bitter, chewy and tough. Cook it too much and it becomes slimy. As a result, there only seem to be two practical ways to cook an eggplant: drown it in oil or bake it until it surrenders. The former has obvious drawbacks, both on a health front and from a textural standpoint as the eggplant easily gets slimy. And the latter leaves you with flesh that is really only fit for baby food or an eggplant caviar.
My solution? I like to brush slices of eggplant with a touch of olive oil and grill them - either on a barbecue or simply on a cast iron grill pan. If you get the temperature right the slices will be tenderly cooked through and you'll have beautiful charred lines across the flesh. If I want the eggplant to be especially tender, as in this recipe, I will also cover the pan for the first half of cooking to essentially steam the slices as they grill. (For a salad, I prefer my slices a bit "meatier" and don't bother.) So this is my secret for Eggplant Parmesan. It's my favorite vice, the dish I make at the end of the summer when I have a handful of tomatoes from the garden and the Critic is away for the evening doing his thing. The smell of cheese and tomato and eggplant (and garlic, always garlic) wafting from the oven is enough for me to move the children's bed time forward half an hour in the hope that I can enjoy it in peace and quiet with a good book, all alone with my beloved dinner.
I always think that I have made enough for dinner and lunch the next day. And yet somehow that pan is always empty when I go to bed at night.
Eggplant Parmesan (the slightly less unhealthy way)
1 medium eggplant
2-3 cloves of garlic (depending on how much you like garlic and how large they are)
10-15 cherry tomatoes or 1-2 large tomatoes
3-4 fresh basil leaves
200 g fresh mozzarella
50 g freshly grated Parmesan
a few tablespoons of olive oil
Heat your grill pan until it's almost too hot to hold your hand a few inches above the surface. In the meantime, slice the eggplant on a diagonal in pieces just under a centimeter thick. Brush them with the olive oil and lay them on the grill pan. Cover and leave for a good five minutes - until the slices pull away from the grill easily because the bars have charred the flesh completely in dark lines. Turn over and grill until the slices are cooked through and, again, pull away easily from the pan. Continue in batches until all the slices are grilled.
While you are grilling the eggplant, if you are good at multitasking, you can start the tomato sauce. Slice the garlic thinly and soften it in a tablespoon or two of olive oil over a medium heat. Roughly chop the tomatoes and add to the pan when the garlic smells lovely and nutty. Cook for a few minutes and then turn off the heat. Slice the basil and stir into the tomato sauce.
Preheat the oven to 190C.
To assemble, brush the inside of a small baking dish with olive oil and then make a layer of eggplant, overlapping a bit if necessary, in the bottom. Drizzle with the tomato sauce and lay thin slices of mozzarella over the top. Continue until you have used up all the sauce, eggplant and mozzarella - two or three levels depending on the size of your eggplant and your pan. Sprinkle the Parmesan over the top and bake for about 35 minutes, or until the top is browned and the entire house smells wonderfully garlicky and savory.
Allow the eggplant parmesan to rest for at least ten minutes before you slice into it, so that the cheese has time to set and the dish stays together. It will easily stay hot for 15-20 minutes in the pan. Then again, it's also lovely 45 minutes later when you come back for lukewarm seconds. I'm fairly sure it would even be tasty stone cold, but I have never made enough to find out.