Do you have an Italian grandmother? Neither do I. My abuelita is Nicaraguan, and she makes fantastic arroz aguado and sopa de frijoles. I'll tell you about it some time.
But the latest issue of Food & Wine is all about Italian food and Mario Batali is the guest editor. When Danny came home the other night with a pastamaker and ravioli attachment, I bookmarked several pasta dishes. And then … a picture of what looked like eggplant nachos distracted me long enough to change my direction.
This Grilled Eggplant Parmesan is better than nachos. Charred slices of eggplant and tomato are stacked between layers of cheese. Fontina cheese does the job though we used fontal, a younger, creamier version we found at Whole Foods.
Grace Parisi offers this and other recipes in a feature called The 45-Minute Nonna. Her nonna is from Calabria, at the sole of Italy's boot. Parisi updates her grandma's recipes to make lighter and quicker versions.
I couldn't find Calabrian chiles packed in oil, so we used hot cherry peppers, and the original recipe calls for peeling off the skin of the eggplant. I did not.
There is one other slight variation I may try next time: bread crumbs. Scooping up the melded-together vegetables and melted cheese is great with crusty bread, but I suspect no one would mind a light layer of crunchy bread crumbs on top.
Several things about this recipe won me over. It's straightforward. It's beautifully arranged into a patterned square with alternating pops of red from the tomato and blackened purple edges of eggplant. Serve a slice with the crispier edges to someone you really like.
If you find yourself flipping through Food & Wine's Italian issue, you may be tempted to skip ahead to the beet gnocchi with walnut-sage butter or squid ink pasta. I recommend starting with humbler fare: the eggplant.
Ileana Morales is a writer who cooks in a small apartment kitchen in Tampa with boyfriend, Danny Valentine, an education reporter for the Tampa Bay Times. For more of their kitchen adventures, visit Ileana's blog, alittlesaffron.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.