Welcome to A Newsletter #29, the number of plants I currently have in my apartment (I’d have more if I could!). If you’ve found your way over by some miracle but are not yet subscribed, here, let me help you with that:
I do not believe in Valentine’s Day as a holiday or a concept. I do not believe in Valentine’s Day “foods.” It’s a made-up holiday! For adults! Why are we still doing this? I have always felt this way. As a single person, as a relationshiped person and an “everything in-between” person.
Anyway, this has nothing to do with an aversion to love or affection, two things I really enjoy. I enjoy them so much that I love to give and receive both 365 days a year! My favorite way to do this is by demonstrating and receiving “acts of service” (this may be the exact reason I ended up as a person who cooks for other people professionally. Lots to unpack there…I’ll save it for the memoir).
If you’re unfamiliar with the concept, know that “service” isn’t meant to be taken literally. Nothing needs to be installed or repaired (although I do always need help installing things), it more refers to an actionable gesture, an act of kindness, something that says “hi, I’m thinking of you, I know you, I see you, I’m here.” This applies to romantic and non-romantic love and they can be big things or small things, physical things, or ephemeral things. Helping them move, ordering them a delivery of their favorite foods, bringing them a glass of water before bed, making them a very good playlist, bringing a baked good to share on a walk, bringing them containers of soup before it snows, leaving a sweet voice memo, letting someone have the last bite of something, shipping them an unexpected box of bath paraphernalia, etc.
As a surprise to nobody, for me, acts of service translate mostly to food and food-related activities (I do not want to help you move!), but even I have my can’ts and won’ts. Will I deep-fry? Will I make pasta by hand? Will I bake, frost and assemble a four-tier cake for your wedding? Under the correct circumstances, sure, I just might do any of those things (Jenn and Eric, I hope you enjoyed the last wedding cake I’ll ever make). But I also don’t think there’s a correlation between complexity of execution and strength of feelings. To me, making a perfectly seasoned salad is just as good as cassoulet when it comes to saying “I REALLY CARE!”.
That said, there is something undeniably sweet and special about a dish that requires you to make several components for assembly, dirtying many pots and pans along the way, a multi-step affair. I’d consider that ...a lot of service. Too much service? Maybe in The Before Times. But recently I have found myself willing to spend more time on just about anything that isn’t writing the book I should be writing, filing my taxes on time, or renewing my passport (I’m not going anywhere, LET IT LAPSE).
I say this for no reason in particular because I’m sure everyone is doing JUST GREAT (!!!), but: in case you feel the dwindling of your own self-love, or perhaps the fragility of a friendship or precariously perched romance, I feel like it’s safe to say we need acts of service now more than ever. Maybe we need to make each other a dish that takes longer than we’d like to spend making dinner, something that annoyingly uses one more pot than usual.
I think we need…a little eggplant parm.
A LITTLE EGGPLANT PARM
The first time I made it (this week lol), I texted several friends that I had “just made one of the more delicious things I’ve ever made in my life,” a text I send maybe once a year, if that. Anyway, no the eggplant does *not* need to be salted, no we *will not be frying* the eggplant. Yes, it does basically taste like eggplant parmesan but lighter, fresher, tangier, crunchier. If you don’t care for capers, you can skip them, just know you are, in fact, missing out.
PLEASE NOTE: Unless you are doubling this recipe (which you can easily do), you are only using half the tomato sauce here. Save the rest by freezing it, or just pop it in the fridge to eat over pasta later in the week.
1 large globe eggplant (about 2 pounds), sliced about ½”-¾” thick
1/2 cup olive oil, divided
Kosher salt, freshly ground black pepper
1 small onion (yellow, white, or red), thinly sliced
4 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
Crushed red pepper flakes (optional)
4 anchovy fillets (optional), plus more if you want
1 28 oz. can whole San Marzano tomatoes, crushed
¾ cup panko bread crumbs
1/3 cup (about) grated parmesan
2–3 tablespoons capers, coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons chopped fresh oregano or marjoram (you can skip, or use half the amount of dried)
⅓ cup coarsely chopped parsley, divided
8 oz. fresh mozzarella, thinly sliced or torn
1. Roast the eggplant. Preheat oven to 450°. Drizzle eggplant with about half the olive oil and season with salt and pepper and roast, turning eggplant halfway through (I use tongs or a fork), until it’s as tender as custard and both sides are as brown as if they were fried (they weren’t), 25–30 minutes.
A lot of the flavor in this dish will come from the eggplant being very very browned, so please don’t be scared to “take it there” so to speak. Please take it there. Take it very there.
2. While that happens, make the sauce. Heat two tablespoons of olive oil in a medium pot over medium-high heat. Add onion and garlic, season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring every now and then until the onions and garlic are tender and starting to brown around the edges, 8–10 minutes. Add crushed red pepper flakes and anchovies, if using, and stir, letting both things melt into the onions. Pour the juices from the tomatoes into the pot and one by one, crush the tomatoes with your hands into the pot (I like to keep the tomatoes on the chunkier side for more texture in the finished dish). Season again with salt and pepper and let it simmer gently for 15–30 minutes (you want to evaporate some but not all of the liquid).
Once it tastes very good and feels nicely thickened, remove from heat. Set half aside and freeze or refrigerate the rest.
3. The last and final annoying thing to do here is to toast the bread crumbs (less annoying than frying though, right?). Heat the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil in a small to medium skillet over medium heat. Add the bread crumbs and season with salt and pepper. Stir them to coat evenly in the oil and toast, tossing frequently, until all the bread crumbs are the color of your morning toast, 5–7 minutes. Remove from heat.
4. Okay, it’s time to assemble this thing! How thrilling. There’s not a ton of technique here, but here’s how I do it to most closely mimic the classique eggplant parm.
Spoon about half of the tomato sauce on the bottom of a 1 qt. baking dish or 6” skillet (both hold about 4 cups volume, that’s the size you want. Doesn’t matter the shape, as long as its heatproof).
Top with half the eggplant (a little overlap is fine, so are gaps- don’t fuss!). Top with half the parmesan, parsley, capers, and oregano. Scatter half the bread crumbs in a nice even layer on top of all that, followed by half the mozzarella. Repeat this, ending with the mozzarella. Add a little more parmesan if you feel like it, maybe some black pepper.
I feel that this is truly perfect as-is, but if you love anchovies as much as my friend Chris, you can use more to layer in (I’d add a few fillets with the capers/herbs).
5. Now, bake it. Pop it into the oven until the cheese is browned and everything is bubbling around the edges, 15–20 minutes. Remove from the oven, maybe finish with some more parsley if you’ve got it stuck to your cutting board, and let it cool ever so slightly before eating. I like to just serve it by scooping with a spoon-- it’s not really meant to be sliced.
THINGS TO KNOW
If you’d like to serve 4 people or are eager for leftoers, you can easily double this (you would then use all of the sauce and just bake it in a 2-quart vessel).
This is ideal eaten out of the oven, but it’s also really great as leftovers (cold, room temperature, or reheated in a 400° oven till bubbling again, 25–30 minutes).
Every component can be made ahead 2–3 days in advance. Keep everything except the bread crumbs (store those at room temp) wrapped and refrigerated until you’re ready to assemble and bake.
You can assemble in advance by a few hours, but I wouldn’t since it’s so quick.
The only thing this needs is an acidic salad with lots of shallot or garlic in the dressing. I would go for iceberg and pickled shallots, maybe some olives. But something mustard-y with some raw grated garlic would also be fun.
Will we ever live in real life again? Will we ever be allowed to leave Zoom? Who could say! Until then, SEE YOU ON ZOOM! More cooking classes! Baking classes! Publishing Q+A classes! All on sale RIGHT HERE. If you hate Valentine’s Day but love love, please listen to this playlist, courtesy Oma Loves Fun (Oma Loves Fun is founded by one of my great loves, Lilli Sherman, the genius behind every fun party we have ever thrown. And we WILL throw another party. ONE DAY. Until then: playlists). Read Luster by Raven Leilani (I don’t have anything clever to say here— just read it). Please direct your attention to Canal Cafeteria, an organization aiming to provide produce and other basic pantry needs at a sliding scale to members of the Lower East Side community (I am increasingly jazzed about the growing number of community fridges and other concepts like it. If there are some in your area that we should all know about, please comment below!). I did not think I would be having to give suggestions for quarantine activities for this long and now I’m honestly just ready to copy and paste Netflix recommendations or suggest you “go for a walk.” Have you guys heard of Bridgerton?
For the month of February, a portion of profits from paid subscriptions will go to the Restaurant Workers Community Foundation, an organization assisting members of the restaurant community with a focus on wage fairness, gender equity, racial justice, and mental health. Learn more about them here.
Past supported organizations to put on your radar: The Okra Project / Food Issues Group / La Cocina / Heart of Dinner / ACLU / FAIR FIGHT / Feeding America