Comfort food means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. For some, it may be mac and cheese, biscuits and gravy and casseroles. For others, it could be anything from tacos to spanakopita to chicken noodle soup. If you grew up eating it and it makes you feel right at home, it can be your comfort food.
I have a few different comfort foods, but one of my favorites is eggplant parmesan.
At an Italian restaurant, that will always be my dish of choice. There could be thousands of other options available — pastas, pestos, pizzas, polentas and a bunch of other things that don’t start with the letter ‘p’ — and yet, my order would never change.
I am like that with many different foods from many different cuisines. Once I settle on a favorite, it doesn’t change — something that aggravates my mother sometimes, but what can I say? I know what I like.
Speaking of my mother, once she realized that I wasn’t backing down on my love for “eggplant parm,” she started making it at home — only healthier, baked instead of fried. There’s always a bag of frozen homemade slices in her freezer, ready for me to pop them into the toaster oven and dip them in marinara sauce for a delicious afternoon snack.
With finals coming up, I needed that comfort. So this week on the ‘Weekly Veg,’ I tackled eggplant parm.
Dozens of different eggplant parm recipes exist on the internet, but just like last week, I chose a 15-minute version — and one that was fried instead of baked. I wanted the true eggplant parm experience, without the true eggplant parm cooking time.
It’s a ridiculously simple recipe — eggplant, sauce, breadcrumbs, cheese and an egg (minus the -plant). There are no bells, whistles or frills with this recipe, which is another great identifier of comfort food.
In fact, it was so simple that — other than the eggplant — I already had everything I needed at home. Or at least I thought so. It turned out that I didn’t have mozzarella cheese, but I did have slices of white American, which I (blasphemously) prefer anyway, so … accidental substitution.
The only other change that I made was less of a change and more of an addition. A small Italian restaurant that existed by my house when I was growing up, Bella Italia, has long since met its maker, but I will always remember how they served their eggplant parmesan: with a heaping side helping of spaghetti. I happened to have a box of angel hair pasta in my pantry, so I made it as well — just boxed pasta and jarred marinara, but a quick and easy five-minute side.
Of course, this experience did not come without problems — the recipe was a bit harder than it looked. I burnt the first few eggplant slices, having to fiddle with my stove to get the temperature just right. The eggplant soaked up the oil way faster than I thought it would, leaving me adding more and more to keep it frying properly.
But I eventually got the hang of it and soon had a plate of three eggplant parm slices, fried to what looked like a perfect crisp and topped with American cheese, parmesan and tomato sauce— plus a heaping side of angel hair pasta. On a Sunday evening in a time frame reminiscent of Sunday night dinners from my childhood, I happily dug in.
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Unfortunately, as I quickly learned, it’s hard to live up to your memories.
This recipe calls for eggplant slices that are ¾-inch thick. Though I had thought it was a little odd to cut them that thickly during my prep time, I had dutifully followed the recipe — but this was far too thick for the thin amount of breadcrumbs that had stuck to the slices’ exteriors. To make matters worse, my constant adding of oil to keep the breadcrumbs frying to a perfect golden-brown had only helped more oil to soak into the eggplant, making them all but wet.
Thickness and sogginess aside, the flavors were fantastic. I cooked with panko breadcrumbs that crisped up nicely, and the recipe calls for the addition of red pepper flakes to the sauce, which added a perfect little kick of spice. It was also a filling meal, especially with the side of angel hair. But next time, I’m definitely going to cut the slices thinner and bake instead of fry.
My mom had it right all along.
After popping the last bite of soggy eggplant and basic pasta into my mouth, I came to a realization. With two lower ratings in a row, the Weekly Veg wasn’t fulfilling the purpose for which I’d started it: to provide college students with cheap, easy, varied recipes that were also delicious. I was meeting those first three requirements just fine, but why wasn’t I enjoying the food as much as I’d hoped?
Days of thought later, I’ve decided the answer is this: I’ve been so focused on recreating recipes that I already know I like — Philly cheesesteaks, eggplant parmesan and githeri, to name a few — that I haven’t left my comfort zone as much as I would like to.
With that, I promise you that the next Weekly Veg recipe will be new to me as well as to you.
And, as always, I ask: have a recipe you’d like to see on The Weekly Veg? Email it to me and I’ll be happy to test and rate it.