Sunday dinner was a big deal when I was growing up. Three generations gathered for a leisurely meal, talking over the week gone by, making plans for the new week, hashing out problems, discussing game scores, asking us about our school assignments. We sat around the table for hours, or until excused to give the adults a break from our squirming.
Friday nights were more fun. Informal. No tablecloths or china. And my grandmother knew how to make everything delicious, so no one felt deprived at this meatless meal. Upholding her traditional upbringing, she made from scratch pasta every Thursday for Sunday dinner, and rolled out several pizzas every Friday afternoon. She would also fry vegetables for dinner. Sometimes artichokes, sometimes cauliflower, but mostly eggplant for parmigiana. We’d laugh and hop around the stove while she fried up the slices in olive oil, then put them into the oven to keep warm — and away from us.
First, she lightly coated them in flour, bathed them in eggs beaten with water, and finally coated the whole with seasoned breadcrumbs. My grandmother never grated her own breadcrumbs in my memory. She had discovered that the local grocery store carried toasted breadcrumbs, already seasoned, in a cardboard box. With food processors still in the future, she’d loved this convenience.
While she was frying, she stirred up a pot of fragrant marinara sauce, made the day before and allowed to thicken in the refrigerator overnight. She cut thin slices of mozzarella and hand grated a wedge of parmigiano-reggiano cheese. Some of that cheese was held over for Sunday dinner. We watched as she generously layered eggplant, cheeses and sauce into a baking dish, building it as high as four layers.
When she finally lifted the large ceramic dish from the oven, its edges sweetly charred, the sauce was bubbling and the cheeses molten. We’d finished the pizza, and were looking forward to our square of the feast.
From time to time, my mother made this dish. Still delicious, but now incorporated into Sunday dinner as a side dish. Mother had a job, a bigger house and more kids to care for. She bought her breadcrumbs in a box, too, a great time-saver. And she often encouraged family members to bring along the eggplant so she could concentrate on the other courses.
Today, I’ve reinstated the tradition, lightened the stress of making it an every-week occasion, allowed some fluidity in the day — Friday or Saturday or Sunday. But something else has changed in the transition or translation. I make my own breadcrumbs. I toast them in the oven, rub with a clove of garlic and whirl them in the food processor that has a permanent place on my kitchen counter. I pull sprigs of fresh basil and oregano from pots on the windowsill to season them.
Then, with all the ingredients on hand, I pull out the “standard-breading-procedure” pans that my son proudly bought at Williams-Sonoma. I set them up as my grandmother did, flour, eggs and breadcrumbs. I heat a decent olive oil, not an expensive EVOO, in my largest skillet. Then I start to dip and fry, placing the eggplant slices on paper toweling and sprinkling with sea salt while they’re still hot.
But here’s the final product has veered far away from my grandmother’s. The family, standing around the stove, grabs the eggplant slices as soon as they cool enough to touch and start to munch on them. Cooking as fast as I can, I never seem to pile up enough to make the intended dish. The hot, salty eggplant “chips” are so good that none of us can wait. So the festival has changed. So instead I pile platters with roasted peppers, assorted cheeses, sliced roma tomatoes and chunks of good Italian bread. I put out a small bowl of extra-virgin olive oil for dipping.
We eat the fried eggplant standing around the stove and at the kitchen table until it is gone.
Somewhere my grandmother and mother are sighing over this. Maybe they’d like it. I don’t know. It’s all their fault, anyway.
EGGPLANT CHIPS
Makes 6 to 8 servings
2 medium globe eggplants, about 1 pound each
salt
3/4 cup all-purpose flour, more as needed
fresh ground black pepper
1 cup toasted, grated bread crumbs
3 tablespoons minced fresh herbs (basil, oregano, flat-leaf parsley)
2 large eggs
olive oil for frying
1.Wash and dry eggplants. Do not peel. Slice crosswise into 1/4-inch-thick rounds. Salt each round heavily and place in a colander. Set aside for 30 minutes to “sweat” out the bitter juices. Rinse each slice under cold running water and pat dry with paper towels.
2. Season the flour with salt and pepper. Beat the eggs with 2 tablespoons water. Toss the breadcrumbs with the herbs. Set up three bowls in order: seasoned flour; egg wash and toasted bread crumbs.
3. Dip the eggplant slices in each of the three bowls, in order, and shaking of any excess at each stop. Set aside on a sheet pan, in the refrigerator if there is time, for 30 minutes.
4. Pour the oil, about 1-inch deep, into a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the eggplant slices in batches without crowding the pan. Cook about 3 to 4 minutes on each side until lightly golden and crisp. Drain on sheet pans lined with paper towels. Salt lightly with sea salt while still hot. Keep in a warm (200F) oven or just put on the table with an array of cheese, fresh vegetables and chunks of good, crusty Italian bread.
— Linda Bassett is the author of “From Apple Pie to Pad Thai: Neighborhood Cooking North of Boston.” Reach her by e-mail at KitchenCall@gmail.com. Read Linda’s blog at LindABCooks.wordpress.com. Follow Linda for quick recipes on Twitter at @Kitchencall.