Baked eggplant with mushrooms

What could I say to convince someone that you don’t need a pound of cheese to make an incredible, and addictive baked eggplant dish–that actually, cheese would detract from really appreciating the banana-y sweetness of eggplant? The vegetable, which begins in this bitter, pallid shade of gray green, becomes sweet with just the tiniest bit of sugar, lightly fried, the olive oil, basil and tangy tomato sauce infuse it with even more sweetness. While I usually think of the tomato as the sweet component, this tomato sauce gets a kick from sour salt. Vinegar would be too strong in this dish. Sour salt hides within the tomato’s natural flavor kind of fiendishly, and has the annoying affect of making you want to eat more and more of whatever you’re eating.

I’ve been enjoying this variation on eggplant parmigiana since I was a child. It’s my grandmother’s special dish, so looked-forward to that if there’s a family gathering of any sort, including Thanksgiving, she will make this, regardless of the other courses in the meal. It doesn’t quite match anything on the menu, but we must take every opportunity to eat this. I finally got the recipe from her, but the name of the dish still alludes me.

She calls it Brunjen or bonjen, something like that. Sometimes she refers to it as Romanian eggplant. I have looked this up in Yiddish, Hebrew, and Ladino (a combination Hebrew/Spanish dialect) and yet I can’t seem to find a reference to this dish or a correct spelling for it. As far as I know, this dish name belongs to my  family.

The recipe is quite simple, although I’ve adapted it to my preferences for this post. My grandmother insists on canned mushrooms, for instance, and I used fresh. I also added some basil and smoked paprika, which I’ve been using like crazy this winter.

I saw these ginormous eggplant in a thrifty Ukrainian market the other day and decided I needed a meaty, yet meatless tomato dish that I could take leftovers for lunch. It didn’t last more than 12 hours in my apartment before it was completely devoured (it’s even better the next day, cold out of the fridge).

Baked Eggplant with Mushrooms

Ingredients

  • 2 large eggplant
  • 1 tin tomatoes, crushed or pureed
  • 1 container raw button mushrooms
  • dried oregano, basil or herb de Provence blend
  • 1/2 teaspoon sour salt (citric acid)
  • 1/4 teaspoon sugar
  • 1/4 teaspoon smoked paprika
  • 1-2 cups breadcrumbs
  • 1-2 cups flour
  • 3 eggs
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • handful of fresh basil

Preparation

Peel and cut eggplant into 1/4 inch slices, salt and place in a colander to sit for about an hour.  Meanwhile, clean and slice mushrooms. Eat a small saute pan with a little olive oil and saute the mushrooms with a pinch of salt and pepper until they begin to brown. Turn off heat and set aside.

To prepare the tomato sauce, pour the can of tomato pulp or puree into a bowl. Add a small drizzle of olive oil, salt and pepper, red chili flakes and dried herbs. Add the sour salt, paprika and sugar. Stir to combine and set aside.

Take a wide bowl or deep dish and crack three eggs into it. Whisk together to break and combine the egg. In a separate dish, spread out flour; in another, the bread crumbs. Take the salted eggplant slices and dunk in flour, then egg, then breadcrumbs and set aside.

Get a frying pan coated with oil very hot. Then briefly fry the breaded eggplant slices in batches of 4 or 5 (don’t overcrowd the pan), and stack on a plate with paper towels between layers to absorb the excess oil. Once fried, begin to assemble.

Putting this together is quite similar to lasagna, eggplant parm or moussaka. Start with a layer of tomato sauce in a deep baking or long casserole dish. Add a layer of eggplant, mushrooms and  a few leaves of basil, then sauce and continue until ingredients are used up.

Heat the oven to 350. Cover the eggplant with tin-foil and bake for about 45 minutes to an hour. Serve at any temperature you like.

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