As Club Q (that’s a fun rebrand of “quarantine” you can use) becomes less like a unique, sort-of-fun period of time and more like a long-term societal shift leaving heretofore unknown devastation in its wake, I have to dig deeper and deeper for cooking motivation. In the last eight months, I’ve braised so many chicken thighs and turned them into so many tacos – quick pickling onions or cabbage has been, for me, a much lower stakes pandemic project than sourdough.

The first seasons of a pandemic being spring and summer made a sustainable cooking strategy harder to realize: If you are eating at home day after day after day after day, you must optimize leftovers, like casseroles and stews, neither of which shout warm-weather cooking. Now I have found a few new recipe inspirations as I watch the apples fall off the wild old tree outside our kitchen window.

A lovely, brilliant friend recently sent me a surprise gift, “See You On Sunday,” the 2020 cookbook from New York Times food editor Sam Sifton. I have not looked through much of it yet, and I have (mostly) made one thing from it, which I am sharing here. When I got it and flipped through the pictures, taken by David Malosh and styled by Simon Andrews, the first thing that stopped the scroll was the casserole dish of my heart, an eggplant Parmesan.

The first eggplant Parmesan I ever tasted, and then had many times after that, was from Corsetti’s when they were on St. John St. in Portland. Since I was six, an Italian with raw onions, raw green peppers and raw tomatoes was absolutely out of the question, so this is what my mom ordered for me. The eggplant was breaded, fried, soaked in red sauce and stuffed into a Kaiser roll. You’d open the aluminum foil to see hot provolone pressed up against a thin, plastic sheet, a bit of sauce oozing out. A delicious mess.

So I have always breaded and fried my eggplant Parmesans. All I’ve ordered in American restaurants, from suburban Chicago trattorias to Isa Bistro, have been breaded and fried. It is the way.

Sifton’s method has changed my mind.

He writes that you “could” follow tradition. Dipping an eggplant round in egg, then in breadcrumbs, then frying it is “a fine way to make eggplant parm.” But his version oven roasts the rounds simply coated in olive oil. Bottom line: it is easier and just as delicious, thanks to a heap of breadcrumbs on top of the casserole.

In the spirit of Sifton’s “could,” my opinion is that you could make a sauce from scratch, a recipe for which he shares in “See You on Sunday,” but you could also use your favorite sauce in a jar. You could also skip the fresh herbs. You could use more cheese, less cheese. You could do whatever you want. It’s Club Q! —  MOLLY ADAMS, Portland

Personal Pantry Eggplant Parm
Adapted from “See You on Sunday,” by Sam Sifton. Zucchini makes a great addition or filler to this dish. Prepare it the same way as the eggplant.

Serves 3 to 4 people, depending on how hungry you are

3 large eggplants, sliced into ½-inch rounds

1 cup, or more, of olive oil

16 to 32 oz. of your favorite jarred tomato sauce

½ cup to 1 cup grated Parmesan cheese

½ cup torn basil leaves

½ to ¾ cup chopped or shredded Mozzarella cheese

½ cup breadcrumbs. Or more. Or less.

Heat the oven to 450 degrees F. Brush both sides of the eggplant slices with oil and place in a single layer on baking sheets. Roast 10 to 15 minutes until the bottoms are golden brown, then flip and bake for another 5 to 10 minutes depending on your ideal crisp. Set aside in a dish or on a cooling rack as they finish. Lower the oven temperature to 375 degrees F.

Put a light layer of sauce and Parmesan on the bottom of a 9 x 13 casserole dish, then lay down your first layer of roasted eggplant, then a scatter of basil leaves. Now more sauce. Now more Parm. Now more eggplant and basil. Repeat sequence, using your desired amount of sauce and cheese, until the eggplant is all tucked in.

Finish with a layer of sauce and the remaining Parmesan, then spread the mozzarella over the top. Stir the breadcrumbs with 1 to 2 tablespoons of olive oil and drizzle that over everything, the finishing touch.

Bake for 30 to 45 minutes, until the casserole is bubbling and the breadcrumbs are your ideal crisp. Allow the dish to rest for 5 to 10 minutes before serving.

Serve with garlic bread or pasta and, if you’ve got the ingredients, a bright, green salad.

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