Saucey (and sassy!) Eggplant Parmesan

Any meal ending in parmesan is, I think, worthy of being in the "best foods ever created" category, if for no reason other than smothering anything in tomato sauce and gooey cheese is enough to incite drooling in even the most corpulent of Americans, full from the biggest, baddest Thanksgiving meal ever. You just can't beat that combination. It's because of this that whenever I go to an Italian restaurant or pizza-y joint, the insert-vegetable-or-meat-here parmesan calls to me. But then I almost always order something else. Why? What I get placed in front of me is always disappointing: you could have put dog poop under all that breading, sauce, and cheese, and we'd all eat it, happy as clams and so tragically ignorant of the truth. This is especially true with eggplant parmesan. Yes, what makes these parmesan dishes so fantastic is the fact that they're drenched in sauce and cheese, and the somewhat bland vehicle certainly takes a backseat to those two indulgences. But I still want to taste something, you know?

I tend to prefer my eggplant parmesan un-breaded for this reason. When you take that coat of breadcrumbs off, you can let the eggplant shine in a way that most parmesan recipes don't. That's why, when I had some extra eggplant sitting around a while ago, I decided to try my hand at the meal that restaurants tempt me with so often, but that I know will only lead to heart break. Or heart attack.

This recipe, loosely based off one from $5 Dinners, is absolute perfection. You can tell that beneath the generous layers of sauce and cheese, yes, there is eggplant there, and not just some mystery substance. The rosemary in particular allows the dish to come alive, and there was something in that pan that night that gave a slightly fermented taste (in a good way, of course) to the dish as a whole. Maybe it was the rosemary mixed with some eggplant juice or oil. I'm no food expert. But whatever was going on in my saute pan? It was good. Really good.

Eggplant Parmesan, inspired by $5 Dinners
Yield: 4 servings, perhaps?
(printable recipe)

The Ingredients*
2 medium eggplants, top and bottom trimmed, sliced
1 tablespoon olive oil, plus more for sauteeing
dried rosemary, to taste
1 scant tablespoon minced garlic
1/2 cup chopped onion
1/4 - 1/3 cup chopped green bell pepper
2-3 cups tomato sauce (I used premade, but there's a recipe for making one in the original directions)
salt and pepper, to taste
egg whites, for dipping
1 teaspoon water
1 cup bread crumbs
2 cups cheese of your choice (I used provolone + parmesan)
2 cups loosely packed spinach

The Method
Sprinkle the sliced eggplant with salt and place in a colander in the sink to drain the bitterness out. Let the eggplant sit for 30 minutes, then rinse thoroughly and pat dry. Meanwhile, combine the egg whites and water in a shallow bowl (such as a pie plate) and the breadcrumbs in a separate, shallow bowl.

Dip the dry eggplant first in the egg mixture, then the bread crumbs, and add the eggplant along with the garlic, onion, and peppers to a medium saute pan coated in olive oil. Sprinkle the rosemary and some black pepper onto the exposed side of eggplant. Saute the eggplant 3-4 minutes per side to brown, adding more rosemary and pepper once the pieces are flipped.

While the eggplant is cooking, preheat the oven to 350 degrees and place a thin layer of sauce over the bottom of a baking dish. A 9x13" baking dish is recommended for the full recipe, but I just made enough eggplant for one serving, so I used a single-serving dish. Once the eggplant and vegetables are finished, layer the dish with the eggplant, vegetables, spinach, and cheese, repeating if ingredients permit more than one layer. Bake the casserole in the preheated oven for 30-35 minutes, waiting for the cheese to melt and turn a slight golden color. Finally, enjoy your piping hot, gooey, savory, rosemary-y eggplant parm that - gasp - tastes like eggplant parm!

*All of these quantities are estimations. Like I said, I really used the original recipe as guidelines in order to use up some extra eggplant I had on hand, and I made a single-serving meal. I've tried to scale up the ingredients I added, but for the most part I just threw things together, so use your own judgment regarding your taste preferences if you choose to make this. You can't go wrong if you do that.

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