WOLFGANG PUCK'S KITCHEN
Classic recipes reimagined have the power to surprise, and delight, unsuspecting guests
Last updated 10/23/2019 at 2:39pm
I've seen it happen many times in my restaurants, and you've no doubt been on the receiving end of this phenomenon: Guests order a classic dish, something they've enjoyed elsewhere many times before, and when it arrives it looks nothing like what they'd been expecting.
The first reaction may be puzzlement or consternation or delight - or a combination of all three. But most of the time they'll eventually inspect the dish more closely and realize that it looks and smells delicious. Then they taste it- and realize it's even better than they had imagined.
That's a big part of the pleasure for a chef, or a home cook, in reimagining a classic recipe. Once you've decided to come up with a new version of a familiar dish, all the rules - except, of course, the fundamental ones of good cooking - no longer apply. You can alter - or maybe I should say "tweak," because the changes are often subtler - the ingredients, the way you prep and cook them, and how you present them. Even the subtlest changes can add up to a dramatic new version of a dish that better suits the way people like to eat today.
Take, for example, the recipe I share with you here for Eggplant alla Parmigiana, as it's prepared by executive chef Vincenzo Scarmiglia at my Cucina by Wolfgang Puck in Las Vegas. Ask most people who say they know this Italian classic to describe it, and they'll tell you it's an oven-baked casserole consisting of multiple layers of breaded and deep-fried eggplant, tomato sauce, mozzarella and Parmesan, served occasionally in individual baking dishes but more often cut into generous squares like a lasagna.
Your mouth is probably watering at that description, as mine is writing it. But let's also admit that most versions of the dish are heavy, and the flavors blend together so much during baking that you sometimes can't tell the eggplant from the breading, cheese or sauce.
That's why I like how Vincenzo prepares it. He first makes an intensely flavorful tomato-basil-garlic sauce - a staple in many of my restaurants. Then, he carefully coats the eggplant slices to keep them from absorbing too much oil during their brief frying. Finally, he tops each slice with its own dollop of sauce and cheese and pops a trayful of individual rounds under the broiler until the cheese melts, before arranging several slices side by side atop more sauce on dinner plates, topping each serving with a mound of simple baby arugula salad.
The results taste exactly like a great Eggplant alla Parmigiana - but cleaner, simpler and more focused than ever. I hope you enjoy this recipe, and that it will inspire you to try reimagining other classics in a similar spirit.
EGGPLANT ALLA PARMIGIANA
2 cans crushed San Marzano tomatoes, each 28 ounces (794 g)
1/2 cup (125 ml) extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons chopped garlic
1/2 pound (250 g) fresh basil leaves, chopped
1 cup (250 ml) tomato paste
2 teaspoons kosher salt, plus extra as needed
6 1/2 tablespoons granulated sugar
3 large globe eggplants, each about 2 1/4 pounds (1 kg)
Canola oil, for deep frying
2 cups (500 ml) all-purpose flour
3 large eggs, beaten in a bowl with 3 tablespoons cold water
1 pound (500 g) packaged Italian-style dried breadcrumbs
Freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup (125 ml) fresh basil leaves, cut into julienne strips
8 ounces (250 g) freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1 pound (500 g) fresh mozzarella cheese, thinly sliced
8 ounces (250 g) baby arugula leaves, rinsed, drained, and patted dry
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon aged balsamic vinegar
Freshly ground black pepper
For the sauce, first strain the tomatoes in a colander over a nonreactive bowl. Set aside both the solids and juice.
Heat the oil in a saucepot over low heat. Add the garlic and basil, and saute, stirring, just until fragrant. Add the tomato paste and stir until it darkens slightly, 2 to 3 minutes. Stir in the tomato solids and cook just until the mixture starts to simmer; then stir in the tomato juice, sugar and a little salt. Continue simmering gently, stirring occasionally, until reduced to a thick but still fluid consistency, about 2 hours. Taste and add more salt, if needed. Then pass the sauce a ladleful at a time through a food mill with the fine disc; or carefully pulse in batches in a blender. Set aside.
Meanwhile, for the eggplants, trim off the stem ends and, with a vegetable peeler, remove the shiny skin. Cut crosswise into slices 1/2 inch (12 mm) thick. Layer the slices in a colander in the sink, sprinkling each lightly but evenly with salt. Leave for an hour. Rinse the slices with cold water and pat dry with paper towels.
In a thermostat-controlled deep-fryer or a deep cast-iron casserole using a deep-frying thermometer, heat 2 to 3 inches (7.5 to 10 cm) of oil to 300 F (150 C). Arrange the flour, beaten egg, and breadcrumbs in separate shallow bowls nearby. One at a time, dredge the eggplant slices on both sides in flour, shaking off excess; then dip into egg; then dip in breadcrumbs to coat evenly; and, finally, gently drop into the hot oil. Continue with more slices, taking care not to overcrowd the fryer. Cook until each slice is deep golden brown, 4 to 5 minutes, using a wire skimmer or slotted spoon to turn them once halfway through and then to lift them out to drain on paper towels.
Preheat the broiler. Meanwhile, in a saucepan, gently reheat the sauce.
Arrange the eggplant slices in a single layer on 1 or more baking sheets. Spread each with some sauce and top with basil. Evenly distribute Parmesan and mozzarella on top. Cook under the broiler and cook until the cheese has melted, 3 to 5 minutes. Spread the remaining sauce on the bottoms of 8 large heated serving plates. Distribute the eggplant among the plates.
In a mixing bowl, quickly toss the arugula with the olive oil, balsamic, and salt and pepper to taste. Mound in the center of each plate. Serve immediately.