Sometime last year, we started getting together with a small group of friends for dinner every weekend. It was very much the sort of thing depicted in photos of glossy magazines trying to sell you something -- happy laughter around a dinner table, glasses of wine, ample quantities food, relaxed atmosphere, and people just looking like they're having a darn good time. Magazine spreads usually don't show you the "let your hair down" parts of a supper club: everyone hanging out in the kitchen even when a new recipe's not ready until 9 or 10pm, lingering for hours at the table, squishing onto the couch to watch movies off a 15" laptop, lounging on the kitchen floor exchanging stories at 2am, making sure folks are sober enough to bike home at 4am, and having special toothbrushes set aside for when they end up staying the night. Okay, so the last two don't happen every week, but you get the idea. Our little supper club parties hard, if you use a very intimate definition of the word "party."
To celebrate one friend's recent emancipation to a studio of her own (a mere five blocks from our apartment! yay!) and the end of the holiday travel, we all got together last Saturday night. The second-best highlight of the evening was the grand tour of her new place, which is gorgeous and cozy and comfortable and laid out like something from apartmenttherapy.com. The absolute best highlight of the evening was the eggplant parmesan that the hostess made.
[Note: I have no photos of my friend's dish. Eggplant Parmesan, for all its deliciousness, is notoriously NOT photogenic. Somehow Lisa of the Lisa is Cooking blog took the most flattering photos of Eggplant Parmesan, including the one on the right. I'm intrigued by the fact that she used Marcella Hazan's recipe (the Julia Child of Italian cooking), as Do just got that cookbook as a Christmas present].
I'm not kidding, this was the stuff of fantasies. The recipe came from the cookbook "Garlic Garlic Garlic" -- already off to a good start -- *and* the hostess doubled the quantity of garlic in the recipe. It was super rich, the texture was almost creamy, and pungent, oozing with cheese and flavor. It's the kind of dish that demands all your attention as you savor each bite. Even Do, my walking Midwestern diet stereotype, honestly didn't care/didn't notice that there was no meat present. This is infinitely better than chicken Parmesan, and a whole different category from the shoe leather dry versions of eggplant Parmesan I'd had before.
Apparently the dish is a whole production to make, since one of the secrets is a special garlicky-buttery homemade Marinara sauce. The super secret ingredient in the super secret sauce is: 1/2 tsp baking soda. Whoda thunk? The sauce is fairly quick and easy (~30min, 20 of which is unattended simmering), and tasty enough that it's become my friend's go-to tomato sauce. She keeps a half dozen mason jars around just to store big batches of this recipe. That said, putting together the sauce on top of the rest of the dish can become pretty time consuming, so either cook this dish over two days or call over a bunch of friends and put them to work chopping garlic. Clearly, my supper club has strong preferences for the latter.
Eggplant Parmesan (serves 8-10)
5 cups Special Marinara Sauce (see below)
3.5 - 4 lb eggplant, peeled and cut crosswise into 1/2" slices.
up to 2/3 cup olive oil
16 garlic cloves
1/3 cup basil leaves
1/3 cup parsley
1 lb mozzarella, thinly sliced
1 cup Parmesan, grated
2 lb pasta (for serving)
Optional: Pour Marinara sauce into a small saucepan and bring to boil over medium heat. Simmer briskly until sauce is reduced to 4 cups. Set aside. (My friend doesn't find this step to be necessary).
Heat broiler. Lightly brush Eggplant slices with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Place slices close together on rack and broil until lightly browned on one side (~6-8min). Turn, brush with oil and brown. Transfer browned eggplant to cooling racks. Repeat until all slices are browned. When done, Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
While the eggplant is broiling, mince together parsely and basil and garlic. Set aside.
Generously oil a 3-4 quart casserole, preferably one that is wide and not too deep. Ladle 1/2 cup sauce into the bottom. Cover the bottom with a third of the eggplant. Sprinkle with a third of the garlic mixture, then one third each of the Mozarella and Parmesan. Cover with 1 cup sauce. Repeat layers. Then, for the last layer, cover with the remaining garlic mixture, then mozarella, then the remaining 1 1/2 cup sauce, then the last of the Parmesan.
Bake uncovered for 50min, until top is browned and sauce is bubbling. Let stand for 10min before cutting into squares and serving over pasta.
Special Marinara Sauce (makes 2 Quarts)
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
6 Tbs butter
12 garlic cloves, minced
1 onion, chopped
1 large carrot, chopped
2 tsp dried basil
1/2 tsp dried oregano
1/8 tsp cayenne
2 28oz cans plum tomatoes, with juices
1 tsp crushed red pepper
1/2 tsp baking soda
In a large heavy saucepan, heat olive oil and butter over medium heat. Add garlic, onion, and carrot and saute until carrots are soft (4-6min). Add tomatoes, basil, oregano, red pepper, and cayenne. Bring to a boil and simmer 20min. Season to taste. Add baking soda. Blend thoroughly. It is now ready for use.