Letter from Puglia: Preparing Eggplant Parmigiana

Another guest post by my colleague Roger Fillion about his summer trip to southern Italy. Claude S. Weiller

Eating in restaurants is one way to get to know the local cuisine in Italy. We also like to cook the local dishes. And that’s how we ended up making eggplant parmigiana during our vacation in Puglia (pronounced POOL-ya). Eggplant parmesan is one of the great dishes that immigrants from Puglia and elsewhere in southern Italy have brought to the United States.

Puglia is located in “the heel” of Italy’s boot. And we were determined to cook like the Pugliese. We headed out to buy the eggplant, tomatoes, and other ingredients in the nearby town of Alberobello, where it was market day. We also wanted to see the historic town’s unique architecture. Alberobello is filled with more than 1,000 houses topped with cone-shaped tiled roofs. The homes are called trulli.

Miraculously, we didn’t get lost among Alberobello’s narrow streets. Still, it was a challenge to find the market, because we barely spoke Italian. My wife and I and our two kids strolled down one street taking in the trulli … and practically stumbled on the bustling outdoor market at the end of the street.

Dozens of vendors were selling tomatoes, eggplant, mushrooms, melons, and olives. If food wasn’t your thing, you could shop for clothes. Our daughter bought a beautiful purple dress for about $10.

Vendors offered samples of their food. When my wife was looking for a place to put an olive pit, the vendor who gave her the olive put out his hand and happily took the pit.

It was hard choosing from among all the vendors selling ripe San Marzano tomatoes. But I finally picked one stall and bought about two pounds. I also located beautiful eggplants. I just had to buy ground veal and pork. It was difficult, however, not knowing how to say veal and pork in Italian. I didn’t even try to explain that I needed only six ounces. I just took what the woman gave me.

Meat, by the way, isn’t a big part of Puglia’s cuisine, which includes vegetables, legumes, seafood and lots of extra virgin olive oil. But meat is eaten on special occasions. We were on vacation. And this particular eggplant parmesan recipe called for little meatballs.

It comes from a great book we’d brought: Puglia: A Culinary Memoir (Oronzo Editions, 2008), by Maria Pignatelli Ferrante.

Back at our rental house, I dredged slices of eggplant in flour, dipped them in egg, and fried them in extra virgin olive oil.  I puréed the tomatoes in a blender and cooked the sauce for about 10 minutes until it thickened slightly. I made the meatballs, pictured here, and fried them in more EVOO.

Assembling the dish was easy, as pictured above. I spread sauce on the bottom of a baking dish. I added layers of eggplant, mozzarella, meatballs, and freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. I repeated the layering a couple of times, and put the dish in the oven.

We were so eager to try the eggplant parmesan we forgot to take a photo of the finished dish. It was excellent. The leftovers made for an exceptional lunch the following day.

Buon appetito,

Roger Fillion
California Olive Ranch