This little gem combines my love of grilling with my endless search for new summer vegetarian entrees. Turns out that eggplant parmigiana, that staple of Italian cuisine, is a wonderful candidate for the grill, cooking up quickly and cleanly. And — bonus! — grilling this dish not only requires less oil than the traditional recipe, it ends up imparting a smokiness it could never claim before.
These days you can buy eggplants in any size, but for this recipe you want one of those big old-fashioned massive beauties. At the supermarket, make sure that your eggplant's skin is smooth and its flesh is firm. That's how you'll know it's fresh. An eggplant with bruised skin and soft flesh is an older eggplant, and probably bitter, too.
You want to cut the eggplant into sturdy rounds about 3/4 inch thick. This allows each slice to hold its shape during the cooking process. A thinner slice would buckle under the weight of the tomatoes and the crumbs. The slices also are salted, which deeply seasons the eggplant and eliminates excess water, amping up the taste. The slices are grilled over direct heat so they pick up some of that lovely char. Once the other ingredients are added, you finish the cooking using indirect heat.
Traditional eggplant parmigiana calls for tomato sauce, but here I went with fresh tomatoes to give the dish a fresher, more summery taste. Like the eggplant, the tomatoes are pre-salted to make them less watery and more deeply flavored.
Now, how to add the Parmesan to this grilled eggplant parmigiana? In the traditional recipe, the cheese is sprinkled onto the layered ingredients. But in this recipe there are no layers. Sometimes, however, the traditional recipe is breaded, and that opened up a door. I figured I could swap in panko crumbs for the breading, then add the Parmesan to the panko. Done!
To finish the dish, I topped off my eggplant slices with mozzarella and fresh basil.
Serving up traditional eggplant parmigiana requires digging each portion out of a casserole, which can be messy. Here, the presentation is nice and neat. And this time they get to eat the cold weather favorite in the backyard during the summer.
Grilled eggplant parmigiana
Start to finish: 1 hour
1 large eggplant (1 1/2 to 1 3/4 pounds)
3/4 pound plum or small round tomatoes
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus extra for brushing on the eggplant
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes (optional)
1/2 cup panko breadcrumbs
1 1/2 ounces freshly grated Parmesan cheese
6 ounces mozzarella cheese, coarsely grated
Fresh basil, shredded, to garnish
Peel the eggplant, then slice it crosswise into 3/4-inch-thick rounds. Salt both sides of each slice, then set the slices aside for 45 minutes. Slice the tomatoes crosswise into 1/3-inch-thick rounds. Salt both sides of each slice and transfer the slices to a rack to drain until the eggplant is ready.
Prepare a grill for medium heat, direct and indirect cooking. For a charcoal grill, this means banking the hot coals to one side of the grill. For a gas grill, this means turning off one or more burners to create a cooler side.
Meanwhile, in a medium skillet over medium-low, combine the 2 tablespoons of oil and garlic. Cook, stirring, until quite fragrant. Add the red pepper flakes, if using, and panko. Increase the heat to medium and cook, stirring, until the crumbs turn golden, 2 to 3 minutes. Transfer to a bowl, stir in the Parmesan cheese, then set aside.
Pat the eggplant slices dry and brush one side of each slice with olive oil. Add to the grill and cook over the hotter side until the slices are nicely browned on the bottoms, 5 to 6 minutes. Brush the top sides with more oil, turn the slices over and grill until browned on the second side, about another 5 minutes. While the eggplant is grilling, pat dry the tomato slices.
Transfer the eggplant slices to the cooler side of the grill, then top each slice with enough tomato slices to just cover the top. Top the tomatoes with 2 tablespoons of the panko mixture, then divide the cheese evenly among the slices. Cover the grill and cook for 4 to 6 minutes, or until the mozzarella is melted. Transfer 2 slices to each of 4 plates and top each portion with some of the basil.
Nutrition information per serving: 320 calories; 160 calories from fat (50 percent of total calories); 18 g fat (8 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 30 mg cholesterol; 1000 mg sodium; 24 g carbohydrate; 6 g fiber; 8 g sugar; 17 g protein.
Sara Moulton is the host of public television's "Sara's Weeknight Meals." She was executive chef at Gourmet magazine for nearly 25 years and spent a decade hosting several Food Network shows, including "Cooking Live." Her latest cookbook is "Home Cooking 101."