When Terrie asked me a couple of months ago what I wanted for my birthday meal this year, I initially asked her for some kind of lobster, a dish she’s made before that I devoured. But the more I thought about it, the more a different idea bubbled in my head.
Five years ago, on Aug. 27, 2017, my mother died at age 91. It was two days before my birthday, and we chose to have her funeral on Aug. 29, largely at my request because it could be a sort of celebration for relatives who had arrived when she took ill.
With my mom on my mind, I told Terrie I wanted to play chef on my birthday weekend as a tribute to one of the few meals Mom made that I actually loved.
Once or twice a year, Mom would make veal parmigiana in an electric skillet (you know the one, square cast aluminum with the little pinwheel vent thing on top of the lid), and from the moment you walked into the apartment after school, the aroma was so distinct you instantly knew what was happening—a respite from the usual overcooked meat, baked potato and canned vegetables. What we smelled was veal parm, which she served with spaghetti with marinara (Ragu) and Parmesan cheese (Kraft, the familiar green container). Still, for me and my sisters, it was sublime.
When I first began cooking, veal parm seemed like a giant challenge, and I stuck to ordering it in restaurants. Around the same time, as an adult, I discovered the joy of eggplant. Then, one night in an Italian restaurant, I chose a dish called “Veal Sorrentino,” which added a slice of prosciutto between a veal cutlet and eggplant slices, and it was cooked in a pan with white wine sauce and a touch of tomato. Henceforth and forevermore, I knew what I was gastronomically bound to do whenever I wanted veal parm. Combine veal and eggplant.
Now as much as I enjoy veal Sorrentino, I don’t make that at home. Rather, I prefer veal and eggplant as a red sauce parmigiana meal, and, being as we still had lots of fresh tomatoes from our first successful garden in years, I spent a few hours cooking up a marinara on Saturday to go with Sunday dinner. This sauce was similar to the Not Quite Pizza Sauce I shared here a few weeks ago, but without the red bell pepper, and with the onions sautéed and blended right into the sauce. I married this sauce with veal and eggplant, and it was excellent.
It helps to have the meal and kitchen counter space planned for this dish, because you need room for all the breading and frying. The first step is slicing a good Italian eggplant into 1/2-inch rounds, salting them on paper towels and letting them sweat for 30 minutes or more. Arrange the plates or containers to be used for preparing the eggplant and veal. My first plate held seasoned flour for dredging the eggplant and cutlets; salt and pepper the latter on both sides. The eggplant, of course, after its salting, won’t need more seasoning.
I used a rectangular Pyrex dish to hold four eggs, beaten. A second Pyrex contained a mix of Italian-seasoned bread crumbs (we actually used seasoned panko crumbs, then used an attachment on our immersion blender to grind them finely) and if you’re bold like we are, add some cheese to it; I used our Parm-Romano blend.
After consulting with Terrie, I decided to use our electric skillet (another nod to Mom, though this stainless All-Clad skillet is nothing like Mom’s old cast aluminum), and got that filled with about 1/2-inch deep canola oil, set to 375° F; the temperature may vary, depending on the vessel you use for frying, but whatever you put into the oil should sizzle and bubble as soon as it makes contact. Keep a roll of paper towels nearby; we used a ton of them catching the cutlets and eggplant as they came out.
During the frying phase, I put the marinara on a back burner at low to warm it and preheated the oven to 350° F. We bought fresh, pre-sliced mozzarella (the kind you’d use for Caprese), so I didn’t need to worry about prepping the cheese.
Once the eggplant and cutlets were fried, it was time to assemble. In a 9-by-13 Pyrex, I ladled healthy spoonfuls of marinara on the bottom, then lay down the cutlets. On top of that went marinara, followed by eggplant, followed by more marinara, followed by mozzarella, with a healthy sprinkling of our Parm-Romano Blend as a final touch.
It baked (under foil for half the time) for about 45 minutes (ovens may vary by a few minutes) and what came out was pretty awesome. Homemade sauce on tender veal and fresh eggplant with a crunch of breading and those savory cheeses—oh yes, the cheeses are my favorite part!
For hours during and after this birthday meal, the kitchen smelled like my old apartment on 80th Street in Jackson Heights, N.Y., on those rare, but wonderful nights when Mom was making veal parm. The leftovers were pretty damn good, too.
Veal & Eggplant Parm
When it came to dinner growing up, my sisters and I got a lot of the basics: meat, baked potato, canned vegetable. But oh for the once or twice a year when Mom decided to cook one of her specialty dishes—veal parmigiana. That’s the aroma I tried to re-create with my kicked-up version of it, with eggplant and garden-fresh, homemade marinara.
- 1 medium Italian eggplant. cut into 1/2-inch rounds
- Kosher salt, for sweating the eggplant slices
- 1 1/2 lbs. veal cutlets
- 4 large eggs, beaten (for breading)
- About 1 cup all-purpose flour, seasoned with salt and pepper (for dredging)
- 1 cup Italian seasoned bread crumbs (for breading)
- 1/2 cup Parm-Romano blend or Parmesan (for breading)
- Vegetable or canola oil, for frying (enough to measure 1/2-inch deep in frying skillet)
- About 4 cups favorite marinara sauce (see ingredient notes, below)
- 1 pound fresh mozzarella, sliced
- Arrange the eggplant slices in a single layer on paper towels sprinkled with kosher salt. Sprinkle salt over the top of the slices as well, and let them stand for 30 minutes to remove excess moisture from the eggplant. Wipe them dry with clean paper towels and set aside for breading.
- Heat oil in an electric skillet or over medium heat to approximately 375° F.
- While the oil comes up to temperature, set up a breading station with three dishes: one containing seasoned flour, a second containing beaten eggs and a third with a mixture of the Italian breadcrumbs and Parm-Romano blend.
- Dredge the veal cutlets lightly in flour, shaking off the excess. Dip in the beaten egg, allowing excess to drip off. Coat both sides in the breadcrumb-cheese mixture. Arrange breaded cutlets on a parchment-lined plate.
- Repeat the same dredging steps with the sweated eggplant slices.
- Fry the cutlets and eggplant until golden on both sides, and set aside on paper towel-lined baking sheet until all are finished. The paper towels will absorb excess oil.
- Preheat oven to 350° F, with rack in center position.
- Spoon about one cup of the marinara sauce into a 9 by 13-inch glass baking dish, and spread it evenly across the bottom. Arrange a single layer of fried veal cutlets over the sauce, and then ladle a generous spoonful of sauce over each cutlet. Arrange the fried eggplant slices over the sauced cutlets, and repeat with another layer of sauce. You should still be able to see the veal and eggplant; don’t try to bury it in sauce. If you have extra marinara, use it to dress some spaghetti or linguine to serve on the side.
- Arrange the fresh mozzarella slices evenly over the top of the sauced eggplant. Cover loosely with foil and bake 20 minutes. Remove foil and bake 20 more minutes, until cheese is golden, bubbly and oozing.