How to make Buca’s transcendent eggplant parmigiana
“Italian food is all about the ingredients. You can’t, for instance, use just any tomato—it’s against the rules. Tomatoes are sacred. Every August, Italian families, mine included, gather to preserve the crop for the year. It’s a serious undertaking—perfect tomatoes are the key to making a perfect sauce. And so I couldn’t put this eggplant parmigiana on Buca’s menu until I’d preserved enough tomatoes for the restaurant. Last spring, I asked my friends John and Barbara Orofino, who live outside of Barrie, to plant 1,000 nova plants (a fleshier, juicier roma hybrid) for me, and they kindly obliged. Here’s what to do.”—Rob Gentile
2 tbsp olive oil
1 small Spanish onion, finely diced
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 cup lightly packed basil leaves
6 ripe roma tomatoes, peeled and finely chopped
Salt and black pepper to taste
1 medium eggplant, cut crosswise into a dozen ⅓-inch slices
1 ½ cups dry bread crumbs
½ cup all-purpose flour
Canola oil for deep-frying
Black pepper to taste
6 oz buffalo milk ricotta (a good cheese shop will have fresh ricotta; ours comes in warm every morning)
8 tbsp finely grated parmigiano-reggiano (it’s important to get the real stuff you grate yourself)
1 ball of burrata cheese
Extra-virgin olive oil for drizzling
1. Heat oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add onion and cook, stirring, until it starts to soften, about 5 minutes. Add garlic and cook, stirring, until onion is soft, about 5 minutes, reducing heat if garlic starts to brown.
2. Set aside 16 basil leaves, plus a few small leaves for garnish, and shred remaining leaves. Add tomatoes and shredded basil to saucepan and simmer gently, stirring occasionally, until tomatoes have disintegrated and sauce is thick, about 1 hour. Season to taste and set aside.
3. Sprinkle eggplant slices on both sides with salt. Arrange in a single layer on a paper towel–lined baking sheet, top with a double layer of paper towel and set aside for 2 to 4 hours.
4. Rinse and drain eggplant. Arrange in a single layer between 2 clean tea towels and press down to dry well.
5. Spread bread crumbs and flour on separate plates. Beat eggs in a shallow dish. Coat eggplant slices in flour, shaking off excess; dip in egg to coat completely, then in bread crumbs, patting slices down firmly to ensure an even coating. Set eggplant aside in a single layer on a baking sheet.
6. Heat oil to 360° F in a heavy, deep pot or deep-fryer.
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7. Fry eggplant in batches, turning once, until golden, about 4 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon; lay slices on a paper towel–lined baking sheet and sprinkle with pepper.
8. Preheat oven to 450° F. Spread four 1 tbsp portions tomato sauce to make four 3-inch pools on a parchment paper–lined baking sheet. Top each pool of sauce with the largest eggplant slices. Top eggplant with about one-eighth of the ricotta. Sprinkle each with 1 tbsp parmigiano-reggiano, then top each with 2 basil leaves and 2 tbsp sauce. Top with 4 medium eggplant slices. Repeat ricotta, parmigiano-reggiano, basil and sauce layers, using 1 tbsp sauce for each. Top each stack with smallest eggplant slices and spoon remaining sauce on top.
9. Bake until ricotta starts to melt, about 8 minutes. Carefully transfer each stack to a plate. Cut open burrata and spoon a little of the soft centre on top of each stack. Garnish with small basil leaves and a drizzle of olive oil. Makes 4 servings.