I was lucky enough to have known my great-grandmother for a short time when I was young. Most of the memories I have of her revolve around food and holidays. Every year, we had Christmas Dinner at her house. Grandparents, Aunts, Uncles and Cousins lined the enormous table that stretched out of the kitchen and into the living room. There was always a card table set up somewhere with sliced meats, cheeses and olives (I especially remember the jet-black, wrinkly oil cured olives ) for pre-dinner snacking and little envelopes under the dinner plates filled with special $2 bills.
Dinner was always handmade ravioli with “gravy” and meatballs, pork chops, sausage and bracciole cooked in the “gravy”. And then there was the eggplant – everyone’s favorite. We all left Great Grandma’s house with at least one disposable aluminum pie plate filled with eggplant. A few slices on some toasted Italian Bread made the best lunch for days afterward.
This eggplant - that was such a staple in my family - is unlike any other eggplant I have ever seen or tasted. Still to this day I have yet to find anything like it. It is legendary in our family.
My great-grandmother died when I was in 4th grade but the eggplant recipe lived on through my Great Aunt Jean who had lived with my Great Grandmother for decades and learned the recipe from the master.
It was Aunt Jean who taught me to make “our” eggplant. She taught me how to pick an eggplant with the least amount of seeds, how thin the eggplant must be sliced and how to “fix” the sauce used for layering the slices.
Like many cherished family recipes, this eggplant recipe is a labor of love. It is somewhat tedious and time consuming – but oh so worth it in the end. It’s the kind of recipe that you’ll want to make a lot of then freeze [in aluminum pie plates of course]. It’s the kind of recipe that has no measurements or quantities – you just do it by eye or by taste. It’s the kind of recipe that we all have somewhere, hand written on a recipe card or scrap of paper and tucked into a recipe box or cookbook.
Great Grandma circa 1982
And now I share this recipe with you – and the rest of the internet.
Giovanna “Jenny” Piscitelli’s Eggplant
(no, that’s not a typo, our last name was mysteriously changed from Piscitelli to Piscitello – long story)
2-3 purple eggplant, depending on size [look for one with an oval blossom end]
salt + pepper
high heat oil for frying
2 cups plain tomato sauce
grated pecorino romano cheese
“Fix” the sauce. Place the tomato sauce into a small sauce pan, add 1/2-1 cup water, a drizzle of olive oil and season to taste with salt + pepper. Bring to a simmer over medium heat then set aside. The sauce should be fairly thin.
Peel the eggplant and remove the ends.
Slice the eggplant as thin as you possibly can, you are aiming for slices that are less than 1/8” thick. The thinner, the better.
Lay some of the slices in the bottom of a colander or strainer. Sprinkle with salt. Continue layering and salting all the eggplant. Place a small plate on top of the eggplant and weigh it down with some heavy cans. This extracts some of the bitter liquid from the eggplant. Let the slices rest for 30 minutes. Remove the slices then lay out on towels and pat dry.
In a shallow bowl, beat 3 or 4 eggs with salt and pepper.
Fill a plate with a mound of flour [start with 2 cups] and season with salt + pepper.
Heat ¼” of high-heat oil in a large, flat-bottomed skillet over medium high heat. You want the oil hot but not smoking. You can check to see if it’s ready by dipping the handle of a wooden spoon into the oil. If the oil bubbles around it, it’s ready.
Line a baking sheet or large tray with brown paper bags or paper towels [you will drain the eggplant on this].
Coat an eggplant slice in flour then dip into the egg. Let excess egg drip from the eggplant then place it into the hot oil. Repeat with enough slices to fill the skillet.
The batter will puff up as it cooks. Flip the slices once they are a nice golden brown color. Cook on the other side until equally golden brown.
Remove the eggplant slices to the paper-lined tray and continue frying additional batches, adding more oil as necessary. Be sure to let the oil come back to temperature after you add more.
Once all the eggplant is cooked you will assemble it. Spread a spoonful or two of the sauce in the bottom of a pie plate. Add the eggplant in overlapping concentric circles. Top with a thin layer of sauce and a sprinkling of Pecorino Romano cheese. Repeat this process until the dish is full, ending with sauce and cheese.
You can now freeze or refrigerate the eggplant to eat later. When you are ready to serve, cover the pie plate with foil and bake in a 350F oven until heated through. You can remove the foil during the last few minutes of baking to get a nice crispy top.
To serve, peel slices off the top. Do not, under any circumstances, cut the eggplant into wedges like a pie – this is STRICLTY FORBIDDEN!
Enjoy the eggplant as an accompaniment to a pasta dinner or serve on crusty Italian bread for the best sandwich ever.
What's your all time favorite family recipe? We'd love to hear about it!
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