Grilled Eggplant Parmesan
I've always been an all things parm lover, but then again, who isn't? Bread and fried something, top it with marinara and cheese, and cook until hot and melty...what's not to love? My lifelong go-to has been chicken parm (aka: chicky chicky parm parm) but I've been drawn more and more to eggplant parm in recent years. The reasons being are that eggplant makes a gut busting dish just slightly lighter, the somewhat flavorless fruit lets the sauce and cheese shine even more, and that creamy eggplant texture is really just fantastic. So when I had an Italian-themed Meatwave happening and was looking for dishes that could easily feed a crowd, eggplant parm was top of mind, and the results didn't disappoint.
One thing that has happened over my career as a recipe developer is that I can no longer remember the last time I've bought a jarred marinara sauce. Marinara is such an easy thing to put together and tastes so much better when fresh, that I've left convenience behind completely and always opt to make it from scratch, which involves a little time, but very little effort.
I started off my marinara by slowly heating oil along with garlic and red pepper flakes, which ensured neither ingredient burnt and the oil got infused with a bit of sharp and spicy flavor. Then I added some tomato paste and oregano and cooked them until the paste was heated through and the entire thing was fragrant.
Next came the tomatoes. I prefer going with whole canned tomatoes so I can puree them to my desired consistency, but if I want even less work, I just buy crushed tomatoes instead. Then it was just a matter of letting the sauce simmer until it was slightly thickened and the flavor had intensified. I added in a quartered onion and a basil sprig for extra flavor during simmering, then removed both and tossed in some chopped basil right before I adjusted the final seasoning with salt and pepper to taste. From start to finish the sauce took about 25 minutes to complete, and most of that time was spent prepping other parts of a recipe.
For this particular recipe, I was able to do two other steps while making the marinara. The first was toasting some breadcrumbs. There's no getting around the fact that part of what makes parms so tasty is the fried breading, and in a grilled application, that major selling point of parms was destined to get lost. In an attempt to not miss out on it completely, I made my own crispy breadcrumbs by pulsing white bread together with butter in a food processor and then toasting the bread until dried and crunchy in a warm oven. I could then use this in the end to bring at least a little bread component back to the final dish.
The other thing I completed while the sauce was simmering was prepping the eggplant. I usually like my eggplant slices thin, which is really just a way to increase the fried, crispy portion of the dish, but since that wasn't in play here, I opted for larger, 1/2-inch slices of eggplant to ensure they had a heartiness to them in the final assembly.
You'll see a lot of recipes calling to salt the eggplant before cooking, which draws moisture of out the eggplant, letting it get cooked to an ideal creamy, but not mushy texture, more efficiently. In past testing though, I've learned that the high heat of the grill is more than sufficient at extruding moisture so quickly that there's really no benefit to salting and resting the eggplant first. So once I had brushed all my slices with oil and seasoned them to my taste, I took them straight out to the freshly lite grill.
There's two advantages of the grill in the recipe—cooking a lot of eggplant really fast all at once, and getting a nice smoky, charred flavor to make this preparation pretty unique. If you've made eggplant parm before, I'm sure you're familiar with the time and mess frying requires and recognize that cooking everything at once with ease is no small detail. The fact that I was able to get all slices on the grill together made making eggplant parm a whole lot faster and easier.
The grill flavor is also important here—the delicate character of the eggplant really picks up a nice mellow smokiness on the grill and makes up a little for what's lost with frying (well maybe not makes up for, but provides an acceptable alternative). Even when the eggplant cooks quickly—like they did here with only needing about 3 minutes per side—they gain enough flavor to make them taste distinctly grilled.
As each eggplant piece developed a look and texture as the slice above, I pulled them off the grill. I wanted the eggplant to be soft, but also still firm enough that it didn't turn to mush when handled. I also was looking for a nice browned and slightly charred exterior to ensure it had maximum flavor without venturing into burnt territory.
Once all the eggplant was done, I assembled the parm by first spreading a layer of sauce along the bottom of a baking dish. I then placed a single layer of eggplant to fill up the dish and topped each slice with sauce and mozzarella.
Next I topped each piece of eggplant with another slice and repeated the sauce and cheese applications, but this time also added parmesan and the toasted breadcrumbs. I then put the dish under the broiler until the cheese was melted and browned. Alternatively, you could use the existing heat from the coals and cook this over an indirect fire on the grill, but you won't get that browned cheese that I think makes the difference between a good and truly excellent parm.
And just look at how that final dish came out—not bad for a grilled eggplant parm, right? For me personally, it got my mouth watering just as much as the usual fried version, and the flavor certainly delivered too. Yes, there was some textural component missing from not frying the eggplant, but what it lacked was made up for by the gain in grilled flavor, which made this method stand out as its own unique thing. The eggplant was ideally soft and creamy, but with some bits of semi-crisp char that added a lot to the already delicious melding of marinara and melted cheese. The breadcrumbs were also nice touch, and while they didn't make up for the lack of frying, they added their own stamp that would have been sorely missed if omitted. All in all, I was quite happy with this eggplant parm, and I'm sure you would be too if you're willing to ditch the fryer and take up the grill instead.
Grilled Eggplant Parmesan
- Yield 6 to 8 servings
- Prep 1 Hour 10 Minutes
- Cook 10 Minutes
- Total 1 Hour 20 Minutes
- For the Sauce
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 tablespoon minced garlic (about 3 medium cloves)
- 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- 2 28oz cans whole peeled tomatoes
- 1 small yellow onion, quartered
- 1 large sprig basil, plus 3 tablespoons finely chopped basil
- Kosher salt
- Freshly ground pepper
- For the Breadcrumbs
- 6 slices white bread
- 2 tablespoons butter, melted
- 2 large globe eggplants, cut into 1/2-inch slices
- 1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 8oz low-moisture mozzarella, grated
- 3oz parmesan cheese, finely grated
- 3 tablespoons roughly chopped basil
- To make the sauce: Place oil, garlic, and red pepper flakes in a large pot or dutch oven over medium-low heat; cook until oil begins to bubble around garlic. Increase heat to medium-high, add in tomato paste and oregano and cook, stirring constantly, for 1 minute. Add in tomatoes and blend to desired consistency with an immersion blender. Add in onion and basil sprig and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer for 20 minutes. Remove from heat and discard onion quarters and basil sprig. Add in chopped basil and season with salt and pepper to taste. Set aside.
- To make the breadcrumbs: Heat oven to 250°F. Place bread in the workbowl of a food processor fitted with a steel blade. Pulse until bread is finely chopped. With motor running, drizzle in melted butter through the feed tube. Transfer breadcrumbs to a baking sheet and shake to spread breadcrumbs into an even layer. Place baking sheet in oven and cook until bread is dried and crisp, about 20 minutes. Remove from oven and set aside.
- Light one chimney full of charcoal. When all the charcoal is lit and covered with gray ash, pour out and spread the coals evenly over entire surface of coal grate. Set cooking grate in place, cover grill and allow to preheat for 5 minutes. Clean and oil the grilling grate. Brush eggplant slices with oil and season with salt and pepper. Grill eggplant slices until browned on both sides, 2-3 minutes per side. Transfer to a large tray or cutting board.
- Set oven to broil. Spread an even layer of sauce along the bottom of a large baking dish. Place a single layer of eggplant slices in dish and top each slice with a heaping tablespoon of sauce. Divided roughly half of the mozzarella between each eggplant slice. Top each slice with another piece of eggplant followed by additional sauce, mozzarella, parmesan, and breadcrumbs. Place baking dish under broiler and cook until cheese has melted and browned. Remove from oven and let rest for up to five minutes. Sprinkle with fresh basil and serve immediately.
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Bunnie I so appreciate your post and recipe. I used the grill earlier for eggplant and now have a stash of mesquite smoked eggplant. I seasoned it with garlic salt, cracked pepper and smoked paprika. So the end result is a heavily delightful smoked/almost BBQ eggplant. I was going to make a cream sauce like a béchamel and layer the eggplant lasagna in the béchamel thinking it would compliment the smoke better and top with home made marinara. Now I am perplexed on which to do. I felt the almost bbq flavor wouldn't work with tomato marinara. Oh what to do? About to begin assembly for tomorrows meal. : ) Thanks Josh!