One of the pleasures of living in a small town is that people can be so…neighborly. Living as I did in downtown Chicago for all those years, you get a different kind of feeling on the street. It nearly feels like a desirable practice not to know who lives on either side, let alone down the block.
Maybe this was a quirk about my own ‘hood, and people all over the city are out borrowing cups of sugar from their neighbors, but I doubt it.
I’ve waxed poetic about neighbors before, the good folk of Wagon Wheel Lane, the Smiths here on Main Street–because where I grew up they were such an important part of life. An unforgettable part, one I can’t imagine being without even (or especially) today, when the old neighborhood is not at all what and who it used to be.
I’m still reveling in my new-ish life on these blocks on Main Street, and getting to know the neighbors. Despite popular thinking, not everyone up here is a summer resident. There are some porch lights still on come winter, and a crowd of people, however small it may be, that knows each other and cares fiercely about this town.
So you can imagine how excited I was when my neighbor Nancy down on the corner here on Main asked me if I’d like to come to a cooking class with her friend Pia, visiting here from Italy for the summer. I walked in to a small group of really nice, really decent women and the wonderful Pia for an afternoon of cooking in Nancy’s kitchen.
And what a kitchen it is. I’m not talking about Viking, Sub Zero, or Thermidor. Nothing to do with granite, butcher block or marble.
Those things are nice, but not all that meaningful. I’m talking about a kitchen where only the best Italian olive oil is used. Where any bread you eat is homemade (“I try to make all of our bread, but sometimes we have to buy it,” Nancy says). Where every week a gallon of raw milk from Nancy’s herd share up in Bliss, Michigan makes its way into yogurt and cheeses of every sort. She rattled off the list of successes from her cheese-making explorations, mentioned she’d love to take a cheese-making class, then pulled out a hunk of her own raw milk mozzarella for us to sample while we made Pia’s eggplant parmesan and a whole menu of delicious.
There were very sharp knives that Mark, Nancy’s husband, sharpens regularly on a sharpening stone. There were all of the special things collected from her good-food-loving trips to Italy and certainly elsewhere: Italian lace curtains on the kitchen windows, pottery pitchers lined up on a shelf near the ceiling, a blue tablecloth dotted with olives and leaves.
All of this is wrapped up with the picket fence around Nancy’s house that leads you up to her door, next to which sits a chair made out of skis, a play on the typical adirondeck chair, a contrast to the picket fence.
I love getting to know my neighbors. Just when I thought I was the cookingest gal in town (at least that’s what Mrs. Smith across the way once said to me), I met Nancy. And her good friend, the Italian cook and winemaker and olive grower Pia. You just never know what’s happening right down the street.
Pia’s Eggplant Parmigiana
Pia uses fresh tomatoes to make her parmigiana; when those aren’t in season, San Marzano whole Roma tomatoes are great for the sauce. Pia cooked her eggplant on Nancy’s big, round griddle; I like to brush my slices of eggplant with olive oil, and put them on a big sheet pan under the broiler to get them deep golden brown (see it here). I also am adding a little garlic to the sauce; Pia did not. Pia says to look for very firm, solid eggplant; those have fewer seeds.
2 tablespoons plus ½ cup extra virgin olive oil
3 garlic cloves, green germ removed, minced
3 lbs. ripe tomatoes, coarsely diced
20 basil leaves, torn into small pieces, a few left whole
2 large, firm eggplant, sliced in ½-inch rounds
2 large balls of fresh mozzarella, squeezed into small, thin shreds
2 cups freshly grated parmesan
In a 4-quart heavy saucepan, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat. Add the garlic and cook just until fragrant but not browned, about 30 seconds. Add the tomatoes and a handful of the torn basil leaves. Season with about 1 tablespoon of salt. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat, cover, and simmer until the tomatoes are broken down and a the mixture is saucy, about 45 minutes, stirring occasionally. Taste and add more salt if needed.
Meanwhile, brown the eggplant. Line a heavy duty sheet pan with foil (nonstick foil works well) or parchment paper. Move a rack in the oven to the second shelf below the broiler. Brush both sides of the eggplant slices lightly with olive oil, and lightly salt them. Place the eggplant on the sheet pan and place under the broiler until deep golden brown, then flip the eggplant and brown the other side. Repeat with remaining eggplant.
Heat the oven to 375˚F and place a rack in the center of the oven.
Spoon a bit of the sauce in the bottom of a large casserole dish (or 13x9x2-inch baking pan). Place the eggplant over the sauce in a single layer in the bottom of the dish. Sprinkle the eggplant generously with mozzarella, parmesan, torn basil leaves, and sauce. Repeat, using all of the eggplant in three layers. Top with the whole basil leaves and finish with sauce and cheese. There may be some sauce, cheese, and eggplant leftover but it’s better to have more than enough.
Bake the eggplant for about 45 minutes, or until the cheese is melted and golden brown.
Print this recipe here.