Good morning Mission, I am starting the last week of my July guest chef instructor residency in Salento, the very tip of Italy’s stiletto heels. Follow me on Instagram to see all that I am teaching and learning and the development of my killer tan.

I have learned as much as I have taught in this land where time is suspended between sun, sea and soil. I will be sad to leave but excited to share all that Salento has sparked in my culinary senses. Indeed, my late August and September teachings at 18 Reasons and The Civic Kitchen will be inspired by what I’ve absorbed through my fingers in this past month. 

One of the most surprising dishes was a light eggplant parmigiana. We often think of this evergreen as a cheese-loaded casserole built with deep-fried eggplant and a thick, long cooking red sauce of peeled tomatoes from a can.

I am not judging; classic eggplant parmigiana has its well-deserved place. But in the version I learned with one of the chefs here, the protagonists are minimally transformed vegetables and fragrant herbs for which cheese is a but a light seasoning. It was so addictive, I had to leave the table to stop myself from eating the whole crock.

Summery eggplant parmigiana
for an 8×8 baking dish (Printed version)

1 or 2 purple eggplants totaling 1.5 pound in weight
Salt as needed
1.5 pound large overripe tomatoes
1/2 small yellow onion
12 to 15 basil leaves
1/4 cup olive oil
pepper to taste
1/3 cup shredded scamorza (aged mozzarella)
5 tablespoons grated parmigiano

Place a small pot of water to boil. Fill a bowl with iced water.

Line a sheet pan with paper towels. Slice the eggplant in 1/2” slices, sprinkle them with salt on both sides and line them over the paper towels. Cover with more paper towels or parchment paper and weigh down with another sheet pan to abet releasing any bitterness they may hold.

Using the tip of a paring knife, superficially score the bottom of each tomato with an X. Dunk them in the boiling water for 60 to 90 seconds depending on their size. Drain them and plunge them in the ice bath. The shock will rapidly cool the tomatoes and help the skin loosen from the flesh. Peel, seed and cut them in small chunks.

Slice the onion paper-thin. 

Stack the basil leaves, roll them lengthwise as you would a joint and slice them into thin ribbons.

Combine the onion, 2 tablespoons of olive oil, 2 tablespoons of water and 1/3 of the basil in a sauté pan. Turn the heat to medium and sprinkle with salt to taste. Sauté until the onion is translucent and softening, then add the tomatoes. Cook rapidly for 15 to 20 minutes. The resulting sauce should be bright in color and flavor, slightly chunky and loose but not watery. Adjust salt and pepper and set aside.

While the sauce is cooking, dry the eggplant well with a paper towel on both sides. Brush with olive oil and griddle, grill or bake at 325˚F until soft. It should take 10 to 12 minutes and you will need to turn them over halfway through cooking.

Heat the oven to 350˚F.

Count your eggplant slices and divide them into four even-numbered stacks. Brush the bottom of the baking dish with olive oil and sprinkle it with salt. Take the first stack of eggplant slices and create a slightly overlapping layer of eggplant on the bottom of the baking dish. Spread 1/4 of the tomato sauce over them. Follow with 1/3 of the scamorza, 1 tablespoon of parmigiano and 1/4 of the basil. Repeat in the same order twice more.

Note that the layers should not be pressed, rather just gently rested on each other.

Place the last layer of eggplant, top with the remaining sauce and dust with the last of the parmigiano. Bake for about 15 minutes, just enough to heat the layers all the way through and melt the scamorza.

Let settle for five to 10 minutes. Garnish with the last of the basil and bring to the table.