Eggplant Parmesan My Mother Would Love

Nothing's better on a crisp, blustery fall day than something cheesy, melty and creamy. Grilled cheese sandwiches with a steaming bowl of cream of tomato soup. A multi-layered lasagne infused with sauce, mushrooms and meat, its edges crusted with caramelized cheese. An eggplant parmesan, the meltingly tender purple-rimmed slices stacked in their casserole as carefully as a fieldstone wall, held together by roasted tomatoes and parmesan.

The definition of comfort.

My go-to recipe for eggplant parmesan was one from "The Cooking of Italy," part of the Time-Life "Foods of the World" series that my mother had subscribed to when I was a child. It calls for salting the sliced eggplant to draw out moisture, then frying the slices in olive oil. It says to somehow limit the amount of oil, a task I've found impossible since the slices soak up oil like a shaggy dog in the rain. Plus it takes way too long to do, at least for this impatient cook.

That was when I started searching online and found a recipe by Food52's Nancy Jo that called for roasting the slices in the oven, which made much more sense since I could cook all of them at once. (Thanks, Nancy!)

Roasting, not frying? Brilliant!

The Time-Life recipe is extremely simple—other than its time-consuming eggplant prep—only calling for five ingredients: the eggplant, salt, flour, tomato sauce and cheese. I dispensed with the tomato sauce recipe it uses, since at the time it was published, cooks like my mother would have used little cans of not-very-flavorful industrial tomatoes that required some "doctoring" (another common phrase back in the day). I had my roasted Astiana tomatoes that require no zhooshing other than a few slices of garlic.

I had picked up some aged provolone to accompany the Parmegiano Reggiano and Pecorino Romano we always have on hand, so those were mixed and layered with the roasted slices and sauce. The result was a bubbling, rich, gooey, hearty casserole that I think my mom would have approved of.

Eggplant Parmesan

3 lbs. eggplant
6 oz. Parmigiano Reggiano, Pecorino Romano and/or aged Provolone, grated*
1 qt. roasted tomatoes
3 garlic cloves
Flour
Salt

Preheat oven to 450°.

Slice eggplants lengthwise into 1/4" slices. Salt both sides and place in single layer on paper towels to drain, at least 30 min. Pat dry and dredge in flour, knocking off extra flour that may be clinging to the slices. Line baking sheet(s) with parchment and lay the eggplant slices on the sheet in a single layer, lightly drizzling them with olive oil. Bake eggplant slices for 15 min., then flip slices over and bake another 15 min. Remove from oven and reduce oven heat to 400°.

While eggplant bakes, slice garlic cloves thinly. Heat olive oil in small skillet over medium heat. When the oil shimmers, add garlic slices and heat briefly, then add roasted tomatoes. When sauce just begins to boil, reduce heat and simmer.

Oil casserole or baking dish. Add a thin layer of tomato sauce in the bottom of the dish. Place a single layer of eggplant slices on it, then a thin scattering of grated cheese, then another layer of sauce. Repeat until all the eggplant is used, then top with a final layer of sauce and cheese.

Bake for 30 min. at 400° until bubbling.

* Can be a mix of any of these cheeses, though I used roughly half provolone, half Romano/Parmesan. Also (note to self) a smoked, aged provolone might be, as they say in Italian, perfetto!

In Season: Fall Has Fell? More Like Exploded!

Like many farmers I've talked with in the last couple of weeks, Josh Alsberg of Rubinette Produce seemed shell-shocked at how quickly summer has left the scene. "It fell off the cliff real fast," he said, recalling how our usual leisurely stroll from summer into fall seemed more like a bad writer's solution to tying up the loose ends of a messy script.

Espelette peppers make a fabulous fermented hot sauce.

A high mountain pass, a hairpin curve, screeching brakes and a looping, slow-motion tumble into the canyon. (Like one person's summary of the voluminous Anna Karenina: "Anna. Train. Squish.")

It's certainly not all doom and gloom, though. Alsberg emphasized that farmers' market shoppers will find that some peppers are still available, as are some local table grapes that weren't mush-ified by the cold rains, but you'd best catch them now or say sayonara until next year.

Josh's favorite apple? The Rubinette, of course!

What you will discover at farmers' markets are a panoply of apples and pears from local orchards, along with fresh ciders by the gallon. And, on October 19th at Providore Fine Foods, Alsberg is hosting a tasting of more than two dozen varieties of heritage, heirloom and hard-to-find apples—specially priced for the event—as well as local ciders and a variety of apple-y treats from Tim Healea at Little T Baker. Another reason to go? Five percent of the day's sales will go to benefit the Sauvie Island Center, which provides local children with unique experiences that helps them make the connection between the food they eat, farming and the land.

Black futsu.

Look for squash to come on strong—Alsberg hates the term "winter squash," preferring instead the term "hard squash" to differentiate it from the softer-textured summer squash like zucchini, costata romanesco, crookneck and pattypan. He rattles off delicata, acorn and butternut as the more common exemplars of the hard squashes, but gets a gleam in his eye when he talks about his fondness for more unusual (and usually better-flavored) varieties like Black Futsu, Tetsukabuto, Gill's Golden Pippin and Robin's Koginut, an organic variety developed by rock star vegetable breeder Michael Mazourek of Cornell University.

If you're looking for the best flavor, it's always better to know your local grower, Alsberg believes. "When it's industrially grown the flavor goes out the window," he said. Big growers are looking for yield and an ability to sustain less-than-ideal shipping conditions; flavor is way down the list of their priorities, he says.

Castelfranco chicory.

Chicories are also going to be abundant, and you'll find local farms offering not just radicchio, escarole and frisée on farmers' market tables, but pale green-speckled-with-red heads of Castelfranco, the long green romaine-like Sugarloaf (known as Pan di Zucchero in Italy) and the pink-to-deep-rose Rosalba. Tardivo is another variety that's gaining popularity, with its long, thin, arching leaves and thick white ribs. (Alsberg claims to have created the hashtag #ChicoryIsTheNewKale, and who am I to argue?)

Local mushrooms are going strong, plentiful enough that you can look for good pricing on chanterelles in the coming weeks. Persimmons are also looking plentiful, and you might begin to find pawpaws from a couple local farms. Pawpaws, also called the Indiana banana, are the largest edible fruit native to North America with a flavor that tastes like a cross between a mango and a banana, and breeders have been adapting them to the Northwest's maritime climate.

Purple sprouting broccoli.

When I exclaimed at the bunches of purple sprouting broccoli that I saw on his shelves, Alsberg launched into the glories of brassicas, saying that they're just beginning their season and should be abundant for the next few weeks. The bottom line is, don't mourn the passing of summer, because there's plenty to be excited about in the chilly days to come.

Providore Fine Foods, which includes purveyors Rubinette Produce, Pastaworks, Flying Fish, The Meat Monger, Little T American Baker and Hilary Horvath Flowers, is a sponsor of Good Stuff NW.

Fermentation Fascination: DIY Hot Sauce

I had this whole plan, see? I'd been searching without success for the thick-skinned, thick-walled, fleshy espelette peppers like the ones I found four years ago from Viridian Farms—which is unfortunately no longer in existence—and used to such great effect to make some kick-ass, fruity, smoky harissa. In the intervening years I'd tried espelette peppers from various area farms, but the fruit, while it had the requisite thick skin, was uniformly thin-fleshed. When roasted, the flesh stuck to the skins like glue, making peeling arduous and not worth it in terms of resulting volume.

Harissa.

This year I was determined to try again to find those perfect peppers and purchased peppers from two more farms. Again, sad trombones.

With the first couple of pounds I managed to make a very small batch of harissa, but the next two pounds were just not going to be worth the work. Not wanting to waste their fruity, biting heat, I was casting about for good uses. Most suggestions were to dry and grind them to a powder, but then I ran across farmer and author Josh Volk's Instagram photo of chopped peppers that he'd fermented in a 3.5 percent salt mixture.

Bubbling away.

Aha!

A little back-and-forth with Josh led me to chop the two pounds of peppers in the food processor, add the salt, pack them in a Mason jar, set the jar in a dish in the basement, then put a zip-lock bag of water inside the jar like a pickling weight, which allows it to breathe (and overflow if necessary). Putting a lid on isn't necessary, but if you do, make sure it isn't screwed on tight—it needs to breathe!

Hank Shaw's sour corn.

After four days I saw bubbles and a little puddle underneath the jar, which indicated that fermentation was, indeed, occurring, so I left it for a few more days. Recipes say you can allow it to ferment for as long as a month, but being the impatient person I am, I gave it a week before bringing it upstairs to whiz in the blender, adding water to thin it to a sauce-like consistency.

The result? Well, we used it as a hot sauce on pork tacos along with some of Hank Shaw's sour corn that I'd made earlier and we thought it was great. But the real test came when I gave some to my neighbor Ivy Manning,  a hot sauce aficionado as well as author of countless authoritative cookbooks, for her expert opinion. Her reaction? "Can you just pour some out on the counter so I can roll in it?"

'Nuff said.