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The Dalai Lama’s Eggplant Parmesan

This recipe is dedicated to my friend Maryanne Cristello (who taught me to make it); and to His Holiness the Dalai Lama (who had three helpings).

I remember well the night I learned the essentials for making a good eggplant parmesan. Having a craving for the dish as I got off work, I stopped at a supermarket and bought eggplants, parmesan, mozzarella, olive oil, and canned tomatoes and tomato paste. Arriving home—a rambling four-story structure I shared with friends—I advised my housemates of my plan, and invited them to join the feast. My friend Maryanne Cristello, a second-generation Italian-American, asked me how I intended to make the casserole. I replied: “I’ll slice the eggplants half an inch thick, bread them, fry them in oil, and mix together a sauce of the canned tomatoes and tomato paste…” Maryann’s look hovered somewhere between horror and pity. “Oh, no, that won’t do,” she said, “that won’t do at all.” Taking ingredients about to be sadly abused out of my hands, she set to work.

I will explain her methods below. Suffice it here to say that her preparations took a couple of hours—though they were all too short, according to my friend: “I hate to do this in such a hurry—my mother would cook this sauce all day long.” My hunger clawed at me, leaving me at the end collapsed against a wall in a corner of the kitchen, whimpering weakly, “Please, please—”

But when the bubbling casserole finally emerged from the grimy apartment oven and landed on the table, it was worth the wait. And I had a new addition to my repertoire of essential recipes.

A couple of years later, when I was in the monastery (Dai Bosatsu Zendo, in the Catskills of upper New York state), we were honored by a visit from His Holiness, the Dalai Lama. Dai Bosatsu’s roshi (“revered teacher”) asked me to make my signature eggplant parmesan, of which he was inordinately fond, as the centerpiece of the luncheon to follow the Dalai Lama’s talk.

There was much that was memorable about his visit, but what you need to know in order to judge this recipe: His Holiness had three helpings.

There are three pointers to sure-fire success, two of which I learned from Maryanne: Slice the eggplant just as thinly as possible, and fry the eggplant pieces after dipping in plain beaten egg. A third I’ve learned through experience: Easy on the mozzarella.

The eggplant

I usually peel the eggplant “half-way”: Peel off alternate strips of skin down the length of the eggplant. The skin is rather bitter. Half-peeling in this way will leave a little of the bitter, but not too much. But this is a minor point: You can leave all the peel on, or pare it all off, as you’re inclined.

Of far greater importance is the thickness of the slices: Slice them just as thin as you possibly can. Re-read that last sentence—it is intended to be taken literally. Using a good kitchen knife that is sharp, slice the eggplant (crosswise, not lengthwise) as thinly as you can manage, while still yielding whole, round slices—a too-thin slice is one that ends as a half-round. As long as you’re getting whole rounds, the slices are not too thin. Mine vary between an eighth to less than a quarter of an inch thick, I guess.

I just made this dish as a review before writing out this recipe. I got forty slices out of one medium-large eggplant. That’s what I mean by thin.

Lots of recipes will tell you to salt the slices, let them sit half an hour, then drain. I’ve always found the result way too salty, so I never salt my sliced eggplant. Instead, I lay out a couple layers of paper towel, cover with a single layer of eggplant slices, lay on a couple more sheets of paper towel, and so on. When all the slices are thus sandwiched between two thicknesses of paper towel, I cover with more paper towel and lay on a cookie sheet or other large flat object big enough to cover the mass of eggplant slices to be pressed. On top of the tray I set a large stockpot, which I fill with water to provide plenty of weight. I leave the eggplant slices under this pressure a couple of hours, during which time excess liquid is pressed out of the slices into the paper towel.

Remove the paper towel and dip the slices in beaten egg. Please take note: Do not “bread” the slices (that is, coat them with seasoned flour) as is often recommended. Just dip in plain, whole, beaten egg. And plan to have plenty of eggs on hand—for my forty slices, I used eight eggs. Be generous when dipping the slices, and make sure they get well coated with egg. Now fry them in olive oil. It should be pretty hot, but not smoking. As soon as the egg “sets up” on one side, flip the slices over and cook on the other. Then set aside on a plate. Add more olive oil as needed, but only between rounds of slices. (I used about one cup of olive oil in preparing the review recipe.)

The work with the eggplant is the most time-consuming part of the preparation. Sometimes I will make several times the amount of cooked egg/eggplant slices I need, and freeze the excess. Then I have most of the work already done when I later want to assemble an eggplant parmesan, using other ingredients that require much less time.

Yes, you need tomato sauce

But I’m not going to include detailed instructions for that in this recipe. Good tomato sauce is so fundamental, it’s probably something you already do as part of the work of “saving the season” when tomatoes are jumping off the vines. If not, any good cookbook should have a basic recipe. Please understand that that’s all you need—just good sound, generic tomato sauce—there’s no specific slant to “tomato sauce” to make it fit this recipe.

Indeed, since I was making this review recipe in the early winter, and didn’t have garden tomatoes, I started with two quarts of purchased pasta sauce and one quart of tomato sauce from a friend. I sauteed some finely chopped onions and crushed garlic, added the prepared tomato sauce along with chopped parsely and leaf celery, and sprigs of fresh oregano and thyme (still green in the early-winter garden). I then cooked the three quarts of prepared tomato sauce down to two quarts or so. Note that the tomato sauce should be a little thicker than the typical pasta sauce—otherwise, there will be a little too much water in the final casserole.

Assembling the casserole

Ladle a little tomato sauce on the bottom of your casserole dish, and spread it out so it just covers the bottom. (I used a 10x15-inch Pyrex dish.) Lay out a single layer of cooked eggplant slices. Sprinkle on some whole-milk mozzarella cheese (grated on the large holes of the grater) and some Parmesan cheese (grated on one of the smaller holes). A typical mistake with this dish is to make too thick a layer of cheese, resulting in a leathery “sole” of cheese as the dish cools. I used eight ounces of mozarella and a couple ounces or so of Parmesan.

Add more tomato sauce—about a third of what remains—then continue with two more layers of eggplant slices, cheese, and sauce.

Cooking and serving

Set the casserole in a 325°F oven and allow to cook 45 minutes to an hour—it should be bubbling gently, not only along the edges but at various points in the center. Set it aside to cool a bit and “set” (firm up in texture a little) before serving.

This casserole doesn’t need much to complete the meal—some rice or crusty bread, a salad, red wine or beer. At its worst, it will still be very good—this truly is a no-fail recipe. At its best, it will be like a baked eggplant-tomato custard. Enjoy!