Eggplant Parmesan, Argentinian Style [Recipe]

Baked eggplant with cheese, tomatoes and spices on a white plate. A dish of eggplant is on a wooden table.

Rosa de Cunto de Rinaldi, “Nonna Rosa” was born in Casteluccio, Italy, and traveled to Argentina by boat in the late 1890s.

She was a mother to five boys and three girls, one of them being my grandma, la Nonna Antonia. Nonna Antonia was very fond of cooking and spending time with her only grandchild. She grew up with Nonna Rosa’s teachings about the simple, yet incredibly flavorful recipes from Southern Italy.

Italian and Spanish settlements formed the backbone of today’s Argentine society. Argentina has significant connections with Italian culture in terms of language, customs, and traditions. In fact, Italian is the largest ethnic origin of modern Argentinians. It is estimated that up to 30 million Argentines have some degree of Italian ancestry (62.5% of the total population).

Italians began arriving in Argentina in large numbers from 1857 to 1940; more than from any other country, including Spain. Today, the country has 30 million Argentinians with some degree of Italian ancestry in a total population of 44 million.

With immigration came culture. Nonna Rosa was the wife of the prestigious manufacturer of the “organ grinder,” or as they were popularly called “organitos.” Miguel, Rosa’s husband, and José Rinaldi, his brother, were the grandchildren of the organist of the Church of Casteluccio Superior, in Potenza, province of Basilicata. The business was named “Rinaldi Hermanos.”  The organitos reproduced a rich variety of European songs such as polkas, waltzes, opera marches, the pasodoble and tangos.

The Rinaldi like few others, dressed up the soul of old Buenos Aires with the jubilant joy of their creations, which one day began to flood the suburbs of the city with music. Time passed and the radio and the victrola replaced this joyous source of fun, but there was something that remained in the family for us to pass from generation to generation: Nonna Rosa’s recipes.

Melanzane alla Parmigiana (Eggplant Parmesan)

Nonna Rosa used the leftover tomato sauce from Sunday’s lunch (always ravioli con tuco, ragu sauce) and the cheese (parmesan) to cook a delicious entrée for Monday’s lunch with minimum effort. But if there was no more “tuco” left over, she prepared the dish from scratch.

Note: Eggplants should be firm, shiny, and smooth. Medium to small size preferably. Overripe eggplants tend to turn bitter.

Prep Time: 20 minutes

Cook Time: 45 minutes

Serves 8

Ingredients

  • 3 small to medium eggplants
  • 1 cup of finely chopped yellow onion
  • ½ cup of robust olive oil  divided into 2 portions
  • ¼ cup tomato paste
  • 3 ½ cups of crushed tomatoes
  • ¼ cup roughly chopped fresh basil, plus additional basil for garnish
  • 1 tsp balsamic vinegar
  • Pinch of red pepper flakes
  • 1 ½ cups of freshly grated mozzarella cheese
  • 1 cup of freshly grated Parmesan cheese
  • ½ tsp sugar
  • Salt and pepper
  • 2 cloves minced garlic

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit. Slice through the eggplants vertically to make long, even slabs ¼ inch thick. Discard the sides that are covered in eggplant skin. Brush both sides of the eggplant slabs with olive oil

Prepare 2 baking sheets with parchment paper or just olive oil. Sprinkle the top sides with a few dashes of salt and pepper. Place in the oven in the upper and the lower rack. When they are golden and tender (25 minutes—halfway through baking) rotate the pans and move pan on lower rack to upper rack, and vice versa. The pan on the lower rack might need a few extra minutes in the oven to turn golden. When ready, take them out and set aside.

While the eggplants are in the over you can work on the tomato sauce. Add the remaining olive oil to a medium saucepan over medium heat until shimmering, then add the onion and a pinch of salt stirring every now and then. The onions should look translucent and tender. It should not take more than 5 to 7 minutes.

Add the tomato paste, garlic, and the crushed tomatoes and stir while bringing the sauce to a simmer. Once simmering, reduce the heat to medium-low and cook until the sauce has thickened nicely, about 15 minutes.  Add ½ teaspoon of sugar. Stir again and remove from the heat. Add the basil, vinegar, salt and red pepper flakes.

You will build three layers of eggplants with sauce and mozzarella in between. In order to do that, you will have to spread about 1/2 cup of the sauce on the bottom of a square baking dish (9”). Place 1/3 of the eggplant slices on one layer with a slight overlap. Add a layer of mozzarella.

Arrange another layer of eggplant slices evenly on top. Spread 1 cup sauce on top and 1 cup mozzarella cheese. Add the last layer of eggplant slices on top with 1 cup of sauce. Sprinkle the rest of the mozzarella and the parmesan cheese on top of that.

Put the baking dish in a 410-degree oven until the sauce bubbles and the top is golden, approximately 25 minutes. Time will vary according to your oven.

Let the dish cool for 10-15 minutes when you take it out of the oven. If you want to, you can add more basil on top.

Enjoy!

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