Call it an aubergine. Call it a melanzana. But why, in the United States, do we call it an eggplant? The other names are much more befitting the beautiful, purple-skinned and meaty fleshed vegetable that is an important part of cuisines from India to China and Italy.
I pondered this idea as I dined on my favorite baked eggplant at the family-owned Italian restaurant up the street from my house. The chef-owner combines the perfect blend of herbed breaded eggplant slices with a garlic and olive oil packed marinara, topped with mozzarella cheese and baked in the oven. How could I recreate such perfection at home, I mused?
After many long and laborious attempts, I came up with a version that only requires 35 minutes of preparation. The secret is oven-baking peeled eggplant slices that have been dredged first in flour, then dipped in beaten egg, and finished in seasoned breadcrumbs. Olive oil is drizzled over the top, and the eggplant is popped into the oven to bake.
The marinara sauce is my quickest marinara. Simply combine a jar of tomato-basil spaghetti sauce, a can of diced tomatoes seasoned with roasted garlic, and olive oil. This sauce is great with the eggplant, but also serves as a wonderfully quick weeknight pasta sauce. My Melanzana Mozzarella can be made ahead, freezes beautifully once baked, and feeds a crowd. Add a salad, some good bread and a glass of Chianti for a taste of Italian home cooking.
Peel 1 eggplant and slice into 1/2-inch rounds. Dip the slices, one slice at a time, in the flour, shaking off the excess. Dip into the egg, then into the breadcrumbs, coating well on both sides, and place the slices on the parchment-lined baking sheets. Repeat with remaining eggplant slices. When entire first eggplant is dipped, peel and slice the remaining eggplant and repeat entire process. Drizzle some of the olive oil over the eggplant slices (about 2 tablespoons per baking sheet) and bake 30 minutes. Rotate pans and bake 5 minutes more, until crisp and golden. Remove from oven and set aside.
Reduce oven temperature to 350 degrees F. In a medium bowl, combine the remaining olive oil, pasta sauce and diced tomatoes. Spread 1/2 to 3/4 cup of the sauce in the bottom of a 9-by-9-inch baking dish. Tightly pack a layer of the eggplant slices over the sauce and top with 1/2 cup to 3/4 cup of the sauce. Repeat for 2 to 3 layers, depending on the size of the eggplants. Cover tightly with foil and bake 45 minutes.
Remove from oven; remove foil and sprinkle with mozzarella cheese. Return to the oven and bake 15 minutes more, until cheese is bubbly.
Makes 6 to 8 servings.