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December, 2008

Eggplant: A Delicious Natural Wonder

By Heidi Allison

During the holiday season we want comfort foods and nothing seems to quell those stress-induced cravings like fried foods and dishes that ooze melting cheese. Eggplant Parmesan, an ancient dish that originated from Sicily, fits this bill. While there are many variations of this signature dish, this authentic recipe focuses on the flavor of the eggplant.

Sicilian-Style Eggplant Parmesan
There are several “tricks” Sicilians use to enhance this vegetable’s delicate flavor: using a “male” eggplant cut into thin, half-inch slices, keeping the breading to a minimum and using a light hand with the cheese. Male eggplants contain fewer seeds and are less bitter; look for slender-shaped eggplants with a tapered end, in contrast to female eggplants, which sport a stouter shape with a rounded end. Be sure to keep the breading light: shake off any excess flour before dipping the eggplant into the parmesan-spiked egg mixture – a light dusting is all you need to prevent the eggplant from absorbing too much oil and getting soggy – and follow-up with a light coating of breadcrumbs along with a little shake before placing it into the hot oil. This is definitely a dish where less is more – a heavy coating creates an oily, soggy mess in the finished dish. And it’s crucial to use a thin, lengthwise slice of eggplant—thick rounds taste bitter and tough. These culinary techniques work in concert to remove bitterness, create a silky texture and keep those calories in check.

This recipe also provides significant health benefits. Only a decade ago, nutritionists thought this veggie brought little more than fiber and a few vitamins and minerals to the nutritional table. But that view has changed. Recently scientists discovered eggplant is packed with phytonutrients having potent antioxidant activities. One in particular is receiving a lot of attention: the flavonoid nasunin, which is found in the eggplant’s purple skin. This potent free-radical scavenger protects brain cells and may evolve as the new nutraceutical powerhouse for maintaining memory. This compound also acts as an iron chelator. While excess iron is rarely a problem in young women (iron is lost during menstruation), levels can rise in postmenopausal women and in men, and is linked to an increased risk of heart disease and cancer. Eggplant is also a rich source of phenolic compounds, such as chlorogenic acid. This compound is responsible for the bitter taste in eggplants and is one of the most potent free-radical scavengers ever found in plant tissues. Chlorogenic acid not only prevents cancer, but also fights bad LDL cholesterol production, viruses and bacteria. Moreover, in lab animals with high cholesterol, eggplant juice caused blood vessels to relax and improved blood flow.

Sicilian-Style Eggplant Parmesan
Serves: 2-3 as an entrée; 4-6 as an appetizer

24 ounces marinara sauce (or use the basic tomato sauce provided below)
1 male eggplant
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 cups seasoned Italian breadcrumbs
4 jumbo eggs
¼ cup Romano cheese
4 ½ ounces mozzarella cheese, shredded
1/3 cup fresh basil chiffonade
½ cup extra virgin olive oil

Preparation:
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees and heat the sauce in a medium pot on a low heat to warm. Crack 4 eggs in a large, shallow plate and lightly beat with a fork until yellow and frothy. Fold in Romano cheese and set aside. Place 2 sheets of wax paper 30 inches long (or the width of your kitchen counter) and put the flour on the first sheet of wax paper, set the egg mixture plate in the middle and breadcrumbs on the second sheet of wax paper. Cut the eggplant into 6 ¼-inch lengthwise slices.

Heat ¼ -inch of olive oil over medium heat until just smoking. Dredge 1 slice of eggplant in flour and shake off excess flour, then dip into egg mixture and finally lightly coat in breadcrumbs and give it a light shake. Repeat until you have 6 ¼-inch slices. Put as many pieces of eggplant that comfortably fit in a single layer in the skillet (about 2 slices will fit in a 12-inch skillet) and fry until golden brown on one side, then turn over continue cooking until the other side is golden brown. Remove eggplant slices from the pan and drain on a cookie rack. Repeat with all the eggplant pieces, adding more olive oil as needed. Place 1 cup of warm tomato sauce in the bottom of a 9x13x 2 inch baking dish. Place 3 slices of eggplant over the sauce and pour enough sauce over the eggplant to cover. Sprinkle 1/3 of the grated mozzarella cheese and sprinkle half of the basil chiffonade on top. Repeat this process with another layer, finishing with tomato sauce. Cover the dish with foil and place in the oven for 45 minutes. Uncover and sprinkle the remaining cheese over the top and return to the oven for another 8-10 minutes or until the cheese melts.

Basic Tomato Sauce

2 (28-ounce) cans peeled Italian tomatoes
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
4 cloves of garlic, thinly sliced
1 tsp. fresh oregano, chopped
3 tablespoons fresh basil, chopped

Crush the tomatoes with your (clean) hands and place into a bowl. Add the olive oil to a medium-sized pot and heat on low heat until warm. Add garlic and cook until golden and translucent. Add tomatoes, and oregano. Reduce heat to very low and cook for 30 minutes. Fold in the basil and remove from heat and cover until ready to use.