When I lived in Italy I especially looked forward to holiday meals. For every holiday and every family in Italy there is a special dish to savor. One of my favorite recipes was one I learned to make while spending Christmas with some friends in Verona. It was a delicious eggplant lasagna, very different from any other lasagna I had ever had. I ate so much of it on that Christmas eve, I just couldn’t get enough of it. To this day, this is the best lasagna I’ve ever eaten or ever made.
Eggplant lasagna, for one thing, eggplant! Who puts eggplant in lasagna? And then the sauce, it was a mixture of a tomato sauce and a bechamel sauce. As for cheese, well a sprinkling of parmesan was about it–no ricotta, no mozzarella. The noodles were thin, probably homemade, not the thick curly kind.
Eggplant is one of my favorite vegetables, except that it’s not really a vegetable. Eggplant is actually a fruit, and a berry at that. I love it’s meatiness. It’s tremendously versatile; you can steam it, broil it, bake it or fry it. Found in many Asian, Latin American and Mediterranean recipes, it is adaptable as an ingredient to almost anything, even lasagna. There are several types of eggplants that come in different sizes and shapes but the most common one I use is the Italian style pictured above, which grows quite large.
By salting slices of eggplant and letting them drain, you can collapse the cell walls and make the eggplant even more dense and meaty. But if you like soft and light, don’t salt it and cook it in a way that will not absorb oil such as steaming or baking.
I have made some changes to this recipe, but it’s very similar to how I remember having had it the first time. It remains a version of lasagna I have never encountered in any cookbook or restaurant. It is a delicate lasagna, rich but all the layers are thin. Though traditionally served at Christmas, it’s not something I save for special occasions, but eat year round.
1 large eggplant
9-12 boiled lasagna noodles, use the thinnest kind you can find (enough for a 9×13 inch baking dish)
3 1/2 – 4 cups marinara sauce, high quality jar sauceis fine, homemade is better, my sauce recipe can be found here
3/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
2 cups milk
2 Tablespoons flour
2 Tablespoons butter
Salt and pepper to taste
Cut eggplant lengthwise into 1/4 inch slices, salt them and lay flat to drain. After 30 minutes, drain and rinse the slices. Pat the slices dry, then brush with olive oil and broil until cooked through and slightly brown, watching to make sure they don’t burn.
To make the béchamel sauce, in a saucepan melt butter and add flour, stir with a whisk until smooth and bubbly and golden but not brown. Add the milk, whisking to prevent lumps and cook until slightly thickened. Season with salt, pepper and a pinch of nutmeg.
Spread a 9×13 baking dish with sauce, then noodles, top with another layer of tomato sauce, then eggplant, then bechamel sauce, then a sprinkling of cheese. Repeat layers of noodles, tomato sauce, eggplant, béchamel and cheese, until all ingredients are used (top last layer with bechamel and parmesan). Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes. Let cool 10 minutes before serving.
*In a pinch, I prefer Classico Spicy Red Pepper
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