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Archive for the ‘Vegetable’ Category

Mushrooms so often play a supporting role in culinary matters, it’s easy to forget how well they can shine as the star. I just discovered a recipe that, with little more than bread, butter, and mushrooms, produces a dish fit for a king.

(Warning: This photo does not do justice to the dish. My plating and presentation skills leave much to be desired.)
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The recipe, simply called mushroom croûtes, is in Raymond Oliver’s classic French cookbook, La Cuisine. I’d been interested in the dish for some time, and finally gave a try. I expected it to be good, but it was better than good; it was gorgeous. After one taste you could imagine yourself at a mid-20th century Michelin three-star restaurant – say, Grand Véfour, in its great days under Oliver – at a table draped in white damask, set with precious bone china and antique silver cutlery – being ceremonially served with an exquisite dish.

None of that was the case at my house, of course – but that was the feeling we got when we tasted the croûtes. And they were so simple to make!
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I started by slicing two large plain white mushrooms and sautéing them in a little butter. Salted and peppered them and set them aside.
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Next I minced six ounces of the same white mushrooms in the food processor and sauteed them, along with a chopped shallot, in butter in the same pan as the sliced ones. This step was similar to making duxelles, but it didn’t require the painstaking squeezing of the minced mushrooms in a towel to remove their juices. I thought they’d probably give out those juices in the sauté pan, but no – they stayed the same nice dryish, nubbly texture.
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When I judged they were done (they didn’t change much; just shrank some) I took them off the heat, added salt and pepper, and stirred in a few tablespoons of crème fraiche. They absorbed it immediately.

Next I trimmed the crust off two slices of my homemade bread and sauteed them lightly, one at a time – in butter, naturellement. This is a French recipe, after all.
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Now I had to assemble the croûtes: Put the bread slices in a shallow baking dish, spread on the minced mushrooms, arrange the sliced mushrooms over them and top with a little grated gruyère.
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The croûtes went into a 400° oven for about five minutes and came out as you saw above. They were inordinately rich and savory, and not just from the butter: It was that recently discovered fifth taste, umami. Evidently, mushrooms are high in glutamates, which are the source of umami’s delectability. In his day Raymond Oliver wouldn’t have known the chemistry of it, but he certainly knew how to produce it. Just a remarkable piece of culinary wizardry.

Beloved spouse and I were lucky enough, years ago, to dine at Le Grand Véfour during Oliver’s reign. It was an unforgettable experience that has left a large mark on our subsequent kitchen adventures. All these years later, every time I go back to his cookbook and rediscover the magic of his cooking, I’m reminded of how great a culinary genius he was.

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Three Fennel Recipes

I keep forgetting what a versatile vegetable fennel is. I tend to think of it as raw spears nibbled to clean the palate between the main course and the cheese – a position it occupies admirably. But cooked fennel is also an excellent companion to many fish and meat dishes – a fact of which I was reminded recently when turning the pages of Michele Scicolone’s Italian Vegetable Cookbook.

There I found three recipes for fennel: one roasted, one braised, and one baked. I thought it would be interesting to make them all in a short time, to see how the differences would affect the results.

A bulb of fennel with its long feathery shoots can be a very pretty thing, but on the day I wanted to try the first recipe, the ones in local stores were looking fairly ratty. But fennel is a sturdy vegetable, which doesn’t seem to suffer much from age and handling. A useful characteristic!

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Roasted Fennel with Potatoes and Garlic

Michele’s headnote for this recipe begins “Every time I prepare this, I wish I had made more. Everybody loves it, and it disappears fast.” Now, that’s a lot for a simple dish to live up to, so I was slightly skeptical. We’d see about it.

My faithful knife man cut half of that big fennel bulb into ½-inch slices (I saved the rest for the next recipe), and he also cut a ½-pound Yukon gold potato into ¼-inch slices. I spread them all on an olive-oiled baking pan, brushed them with more oil, and added salt and pepper.
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The pan went into a 425° oven for 20 minutes, after which I took it out, turned over the vegetables, sprinkled on a minced garlic clove, and roasted for 10 more minutes, when the recipe said they’d be tender and browned. Tender they definitely were, but not even remotely as brown and handsome as the book’s photograph showed.
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I wonder if my oven is running too cool. Still, it was dinner time, so out they came. And you know what? They were scrumptious. We both loved them, they disappeared fast, and I wished I had made more.

 

Golden Braised Fennel

A few days later I made the second recipe, which as almost as effortless as the first. The second half of that big fennel bulb, also in ½-inch slices, went into a sauté pan with melted butter.
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I sauteed the pieces for four minutes on each side, until they were just beginning to brown, then poured on a little water, added salt and pepper, covered the pan, and cooked it very gently for 20 minutes. About half-way through, I checked and added a little more water to keep the fennel from frying. Then I sprinkled on two tablespoons of grated parmigiano, covered the pan again, and cooked for another minute, until the cheese melted in.
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This was also a good dish, simple and homey. It tasted mostly of pure fennel – vegetal and lightly liquoricey. It was meltingly soft from the moist cooking, with just a hint of richness from the cheese.

 

Creamy Fennel Gratin

This recipe’s headnote calls it one of Michele’s favorite ways to eat fennel. It’s more elaborate than the others but not at all difficult or time-consuming to make. I was able to get a better-looking bulb of fennel for it than I had for the other recipes. (Too bad I had no use for the attractive feathery fronds!)

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The fennel was to be cut in ½-inch thick wedges and parboiled until almost tender. My wedges came out rather thicker than that, so they took 10 minutes, not the suggested 5.
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Drained, sprayed with cold water, and patted dry, the wedges went into a buttered baking dish; were topped with butter bits, heavy cream, freshly ground black pepper, and grated parmigiano; and baked for 20 minutes at 400°.
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The fennel wedges absorbed almost all the cream, making them plump, lush, and velvety. The light crust of the butter-browned cheese was a good textural contrast. I think this would be an excellent dish to serve at a dinner party, alongside a broiled or roasted meat or chicken.

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Three recipes, all tasting deliciously of fennel, but each sufficiently different to occupy separate flavor and utility niches: Nice!

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Though it hasn’t yet been a terribly cold winter here, there have been enough harsh winds, wetness, and dark, dreary skies to have me reaching for solid, rib-sticking recipes to counteract the chill. One especially comforting dish of that kind is fagioli con la cotica: white beans stewed with pork skin.

Pig skin is probably most familiar to Americans as the cover of a football, but pork skin is also relished as the crunchy crackling on a well-roasted fresh ham, and next as an ingredient in cassoulet, where its natural gelatins add body and succulence to that long-cooked dish of beans and meats. It does the same for this simpler preparation with beans and a small tomato sauce, which I first encountered in a trattoria in Rome’s Trastevere district long ago.

For my fagioli con cotica, I more or less follow a recipe in the Cucina Romana volume of the del Riccio series of regional Italian cookbooks. In my early years of visiting bookstores in Rome, I acquired 14 of these small paperbacks at $3 or $4 each. I’ve found their recipes very reliable, though like many cookbooks written in Italian they’re sometimes vague about quantities of ingredients – whence comes the more-or-less-ness of my following the recipes.

Overall, fagioli con cotica takes quite a long time to prepare, but the beans, the pork skin, and the sauce can all be done separately well in advance, and then combined for a final cooking of less than half an hour.

For a portion for two, I use a quarter-pound of dry white beans: marrows, if I can get them; otherwise great Northern. I soak them overnight, and the next day drain them, cover them with fresh water, and gently boil them, along with a sprig of rosemary, until almost done.
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The skin of a pig starts out very tough. There’s a reason they cover footballs with it! Several months ago my friend Michele shared with me a large sheet of it that she’d acquired, which goes in and out of my freezer as I need to take pieces off.
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This day I needed about four ounces’ worth. While that size piece was whole I dropped it in boiling water for 10 minutes, which softened it enough to be further cut up into short strips. Tom, my ever-expert knife man, did that for me, using a sharp, heavy butcher knife to intimidate the pork skin. Then the little pieces cooked in water again until they were tender. This took about an hour. The time can vary greatly with different skins, but it requires little attention other than checking from time to time on its tenderness.
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I started the sauce by sauteeing chopped onion, parsley, and basil in olive oil. (Rendered prosciutto fat would have been better than olive oil, but I didn’t have any.) In my mini food processor I pulsed a scant cup of my own preserved San Marzano plum tomatoes, stirred the puree into the pan with some salt and pepper, and cooked for 15 minutes.
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Then I drained the cooked beans, saving some of their liquid, and added them to the sauce, along with the cooked pieces of pork skin.
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The mixture simmered, uncovered, for about 20 minutes. The beans happily absorbed sauce, so to keep it all appropriately moist – just short of soupy – I stirred in a few spoonsful of the bean cooking liquid. The beans held their shape, the cotica softened a little more, and the dish was ready to eat.
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Homely in the best sense of the word, this is delicious, heartening food that warms the stomach and the spirit in equal measure. You can tell from its simplicity that it was born on the farm, and it still carries that kind of country pleasure. A bowl of these beans, some good crusty bread, and a glass of hearty red wine: just what we need in the dead of winter.

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On the occasional evening when Tom isn’t dining at home, I like to make a nice little dinner just for myself. I almost always choose chicken as my main dish, since he doesn’t enjoy it nearly as much as I do. One such opportunity came up just recently.

The recipes I chose for my meal, though interesting to read, gave me some concerns. Oh well, I thought; trying a new dish always involves some risk. In La Bonne Cuisine de Madame E. Saint-Ange I’d found a recipe for Poulet à la Casserole and also one for Endives à la Façon Flamande that I thought would go well with chicken. Acquiring the components was easy, because the only ingredients were the bird, two Belgian endives, and butter. The butter I already had.

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Madame is very particular about the size of her poultry, calling for two-pound young chickens in all her casserole-cooked recipes. We rarely see chickens that small here, but I found a fresh Cornish hen of the right weight.

The cooking method is ridiculously simple, but I wondered if it would work. It said to melt butter in a casserole dish. Once the dish was warm, put in the chicken, cover immediately, and let it cook untouched, on moderate heat, until the chicken was tender; about an hour. Then uncover the dish and “color” the bird in its butter.

Here’s the hen just going onto the stove.

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Two things worried me here. The butter was not supposed to brown at all during the cooking. I couldn’t imagine how it wouldn’t, in all that time on direct heat. And with no turning of the bird, why wouldn’t it become seriously stuck to the bottom of the casserole? But I did as directed, nervously looking in every 15 minutes, lightly nudging the bird, and turning the heat down or up a little, in my uncertainty.

Here’s the hen when I decided it was done, after an hour and a quarter.

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Indeed, the butter hadn’t burned, only turned more golden. But in the last several minutes, the hen had given out a lot of liquid (hardly visible in the photo), which I had to boil off before I could do any final browning. And when I tried to turn it over to start browning, it had – as I’d feared – stuck. Pitiful.
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Furthermore, and totally unexpectedly, the dratted thing would not brown. I tried long enough to be afraid it would just fall apart in the pan if I kept turning it, so out it came, almost as pale as it went in.

Next I was to “lift off the light crust” from the bottom of the casserole with a little water, stirring to make a simple pan gravy. Mine wasn’t exactly a light crust – it was mostly a mess of bits of chicken skin, but I did it.
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Meanwhile, I had been making the Flemish endive dish. For that I had to cut up the endives, wash and dry them thoroughly, pack them into a heavily buttered ovenproof pan, put a round of heavily buttered parchment paper on top, add a tight cover, and cook them in “a gentle oven” for two whole hours. No liquid at all.
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I started the dish at 325° but soon turned it lower, because I could already smell the endives cooking, and that didn’t seem right. At the end of two hours, they were supposed to have gathered together into a compact mass that, turned over onto a plate, would be a lightly golden cake. Mine wasn’t. The pieces were still totally loose, some brown and crisp, others pale and soft.
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Obviously, neither of these dishes could be considered a successful execution of a recipe from a classic, authoritative cookbook. But they were what I had to eat for my dinner, so I sat down dubiously to the ugliest chicken I had ever prepared and one of the least prepossessing vegetables.
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And yet . . . and yet . . . there’s a happy ending to this story.

My ugly little hen was absolutely delicious. As promised by the recipe, in its long cooking the butter had diffused through its flesh, enhancing its natural flavor. The light bitterness of my faux-sauteed endives was a good foil for the rich, buttery chicken; and the simple little pan gravy beautifully moistened both bird and vegetable. A light sprinkling of salt was all they needed.

So: two dishes far from pretty, but both very tasty. Could’ve been worse. I doubt I’ll ever make either of these recipes again, especially not for anyone other than myself, but I’m pleased that they provided me with a good dinner after all.

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‘Tis the season for gastronomical indulgences large and small. One seasonal treat that’s small in size but large in the amount of pleasure it provides is fresh porcini mushrooms. When these fabulous fungi are available in one of my local markets I have to have some, despite their stratospheric prices, because they give distinction to the simplest dinner.
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The specimens above are practically infants. In late fall, restaurants in Italy often display bowlfuls of porcini with caps typically about five inches across. But even the little ones have the species’ depth of unmatchable flavor, so a few almost always follow me home.
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With this batch, Beloved Spouse stepped into the chef’s role. Some 30 years ago, when he was on a wine writers’ trip in Genoa, he was served a magnificent dish of a huge porcino cap reposing on a bed of thinly sliced potatoes, both slathered with excellent olive oil, apparently oven-roasted and finished briefly under a broiler. He remembers it as ambrosia, and from his description, I’d envied him that experience for a very long time. So, with porcini at hand and his reputation for reliable memory at stake, this week he set about making something like it for us at home.

First he thinly sliced all-purpose potatoes, parboiled them for a few minutes, and drained them.  While they were cooling and drying, he briefly seethed a sliced clove of garlic in about two-thirds of a cup of olive oil, not letting it color. Then he removed the garlic, spread a little of the oil in a gratin dish, and laid out the potato slices, adding salt and pepper.
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On top he placed the sliced porcini stems and whole caps, brushing everything generously with the garlic-scented olive oil and pouring the rest of the oil around the potatoes.
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The dish went into a 375° degree oven for about 20 minutes, followed by a few minutes under the broiler for browning.
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The caps had shrunk somewhat, which slightly marred their appearance, but not at all their flavor. The aroma of the dish was as captivating as its taste. The potatoes loved the porcini, and vice versa. You couldn’t taste the garlic as itself, only as a subtle enlivening of the other flavors.  The porcini were transcendent – rich and meaty, a bit suggestive of sweetbreads.

This may not have been the legendary dish of that Genoese restaurant, but Beloved Spouse thought it very close, and it turned a simple meal of grilled skirt steak and broiled eggplant into a thoroughly satisfying little feast.
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I’m encouraging him to keep on experimenting, if he thinks he can improve it any further!

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When I was growing up, my mother never cooked cauliflower. What we knew of it, we didn’t like. When I’d encountered it at other people’s homes, it was boiled long enough to bring out the sulfur smell and was drenched with a sauce of Velveeta cheese. It took many years for me to realize cauliflower didn’t have to be like that.

It was when I started doing some Indian cooking, and discovered the many interesting ways that cuisine uses cauliflower, that I became curious about the vegetable. I now know that, when not overcooked, it has a wonderful ability to bond with all kinds of other flavors. I still don’t serve it often, because an average-sized whole cauliflower is a lot for a two-person household to get through. But I do choose it occasionally. Here are the simple ways I dealt with the head that I brought home this week.

 

Day 1: Warm cauliflower salad

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I took about a third of the florets off the head, steamed them for seven minutes, until they were just tender. I also chopped ½ cup of celery, ¼ cup of onion, and ⅛ cup of Tuscan pickled peppers.
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While the florets were still warm, I tossed them gently in a bowl with the chopped vegetables, extra-virgin olive oil, my own wine vinegar, salt, and pepper. I had to be careful with the vinegar because my Tuscan peppers were very strongly pickled.
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The mixture made a pleasant, light vegetable starter for a weekday dinner. In spring or summer, I also add a few thinly sliced radishes and some of their tiny leaves to this salad; but I never buy radishes in November.

 

Day 2: Cavolfiore fritto

In principle, I follow Marcella Hazan’s recipe for breaded and fried cauliflower, though it’s such an easy process that it hardly needs a recipe. This evening I took off half the remaining florets from my head of cauliflower, steamed them for only five minutes (since they’d be getting more cooking later), and let them cool. I dipped them first in an egg beaten with salt, then in dry breadcrumbs.
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Beloved Spouse then stepped up and fried them for me, in half an inch of very hot olive oil. It took only about a minute on each side for them to turn richly golden.
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While the steaming and breading can be done an hour or more in advance, once the florets are fried, they need to be eaten right away to be at their best.
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This time they were, as always, crisp, crunchy, and delicious – an excellent accompaniment to broiled lamb chops. Actually, they would work well with almost any un-sauced meat or fowl.

 

Day 3: Cauliflower soup

I dedicated the rest of my cauliflower to a favorite soup. The original recipe is from Alfred Portale’s Twelve Seasons Cookbook. There it’s called a vichyssoise, to be served cold. I make just the basic soup, leaving out several of the recipe’s garnishes, and I like to serve it hot.

To make a small enough soup for the amount of cauliflower florets I had left this week, I chopped ¼ cup of onions and thinly sliced ⅓ cup of leeks.
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I sauteed those two vegetables in a tablespoon of olive oil, then added the florets and a cup of chicken broth from a bouillon cube.
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This cooked, covered, for 20 minutes, until the florets were tender. Then I pureed everything in a blender. I tasted and added salt and pepper, and the soup was ready to reheat at dinner time.
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This simple soup is just amazingly good. In a blind tasting, you probably wouldn’t guess it was cauliflower; you’d distinguish only a generic vegetal sweetness. And it’s such a rich puree you’d think it must be at least half butter and cream. I’m sure the dressed-up version – with sauteed cauliflower slices, a dose of olive oil, and a sprinkling of chopped chives – would be excellent too, but I’ve never felt the need to try it.

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There’s nothing complex in these cauliflower dishes, especially compared to those in typical Indian recipes, but each is very tasty, and together they show the versatility of the vegetable I once disliked. We live and learn, eh?

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The NY Times food section has got my dander up again. Headlines on an October 4th article promise a “method for keeping eggplant Parmesan crisp and delicious,” thus “solving the puzzle of eggplant Parmesan.” Now, there’s a solution looking for a problem! Crispness is a totally wrong characteristic for this dish.

Author Julia Moskin found a problem, though. She tells us that, up to now, she had never made an eggplant Parmesan that she didn’t regret. Many recipes, mostly American, that she’d tried made it come out tough, slimy, mushy, or sludgy. However, she concedes that good Italian versions of eggplant Parmesan exist – so why didn’t she make them rather than abandon an entire range of great traditional recipes for the sins of some bad ones?!

It’s because she wants her eggplant to be crisp, like a crusty breaded veal cutlet. So she set about to solve the puzzle of “in the real world, how to put crunchy eggplant, juicy tomato sauce and melted cheese together on one plate.”
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Well, in the real or any other world, I have no objection to a dish of breaded and fried eggplant with marinara sauce and mozzarella alongside. But for heaven’s sake, don’t call it eggplant Parmesan!

As for making the real thing, there are perfectly easy ways to prevent problems like mushiness or sludge. Don’t coat the eggplant slices with both a thick batter and breadcrumbs, don’t over-fry them, don’t drown them in sauce, and don’t bake the dish for too long a time. But also, don’t expect the eggplant to retain any crispness: That’s like asking for a crisp, crunchy ratatouille.

Having vented this, my latest culinary annoyance with the Times (others are here and here), I decided to soothe my spirits by making a genuine parmigiana di melanzane. I’ve already written here about one favorite version; this time I chose one that’s a little different, from my book The Seasons of the Italian Kitchen.

In many ways the two recipes sound as if they’d be very similar. Mostly the same components: eggplant, tomato sauce, onion, basil, grated parmigiano, mozzarella. Mostly the same procedures: making a simple sauce of plum tomatoes, salting or soaking thinly sliced eggplant, lightly frying it in olive oil, layering it in a baking dish with the other ingredients, and baking it.

But the two versions produce dishes with quite different effects, starting with the way the tomato sauce is made. My earlier one, more typically, softens a little onion in olive oil, stirs in pureed tomatoes and basil, and sautés until the sauce thickens. This one uses no oil – just softens halved tomatoes in a pot with onion and basil (no water), puts them through a food mill, and simmers until thick. Then the sauce is mixed with beaten raw egg.

Also, the two recipes use different proportions of the ingredients. For the same quantity of eggplant, this one (on the right) uses only half as much sauce (not counting the egg), and half as much of each cheese. That produces a dryer dish, as these two photos of the layering processes show.
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Baking time is different, too. The earlier version bakes at 350° for only 20 minutes, uncovered. The newer one goes into a 350° oven, covered, for 30 minutes, then is uncovered and baked 10 more minutes at 400°.
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Eggplant parmigiana always needs to cool somewhat before being eaten, to let the flavors blend. This one sat for a full half hour, and in fact it tasted even better as the portions cooled further on our plates. As you can see, on the right, below, it’s still much “eggplantier” than the earlier version, but the vegetable is beautifully permeated with all the other flavors.
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The portion on the right is also considerably dryer and more concentrated than the other one. The cheeses aren’t as prominent, serving more as an accent and slight binder here. The egg itself is unnoticeable, having merely done its job of smoothing and thickening everything else.

Both these versions of eggplant parmigiana are totally delicious. Neither one needs anything to make it great again; they’re great just as they are.

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