Calling the marriage of melanzane (eggplant) alla parmigiana and a Central Coast Sauvignon Blanc an "odd pair" may seem like a stretch to some. But when you consider the ingredients, flavors, and aromas in the dish, the pairing options are more challenging than is immediately apparent.
Gently bitter, earthy eggplant; sweet yet acidity-driven tomato sauce made with slowly sautéed garlic, minced onion and flat-leaf parsley; freshly and finely shredded cow's milk domestic mozzarella, as plump and fat as our four-week-old baby girl; and slightly piquant, freshly grated aged Parmgiano Reggiano -- this classic dish of the modern Italian gastronomic canon is defined by its contrasts in extremes. (I call it modern because it combines one of the great cheeses of Northern Italy -- Parmigiano Reggiano -- with the plastic cheese of Campania in the south and eggplant, a nightshade that wasn't widely consumed in Italy until the late nineteenth century.)
The 2009 Central Coast Sauvignon Blanc from Monterey County by the Bernardus winery was one of the bottles that made it into our fridge thanks to the challenge I posed late last year to my Spec's sales person: Put together a mixed case of food-friendly North and South American wines for under $25 a bottle, I had asked him.
At 13.5 percent alcohol (YES!) and under $20, the Bernardus was one of the winners: Intense but varietally correct aromatic profile, the bright acidity that I crave (with moderate alcohol content), and fresh, clean notes of sour apple and grapefruit.
But it was the fragrant power of this wine and its minerality that made it work so well with the ostensibly discordant flavors of the dish.
Slice one medium-sized black beauty aubergine into ¼-inch rounds (I know that you Solanaceae geeks out there would cringe if I called a western variety eggplant). Arrange in a colander and sprinkle with kosher salt. Set aside for 30 minutes to purge its bitter liquid.
Pre-heat the oven to 350° Fahrenheit.
In the meantime, make the tomato sauce by sautéeing 1 or 2 peeled whole cloves of garlic, 2 tbsp. finely minced onion and 1 tbsp. finely chopped well washed flat-leaf parsley in extra virgin olive oil (reserve a tbsp. of flat-leaf parsley to finish the dish). Add your favorite tomato purée (ideally unseasoned; my favorite is the Central Market brand in bottle). Season with 1 bay leaf, and salt, pepper, and chili flakes to taste. Once the tomato has begun to simmer, add ½ cup of white wine. By the time the eggplant has entirely purged its liquid, the sauce will be ready.
Grease a medium-size, oven-ready, deep casserole dish with unsalted butter. Distribute the aubergine rounds in the bottom of the dish and sprinkle generously with freshly grated domestic cow's milk mozzarella. Pour the sauce into the dish, making sure to cover the aubergine completely. Top generously with freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano and bake until the Parmigiano Reggiano begins to brown.
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Serve hot sprinkled with finely chopped flat-leaf parsley.
In summer, when locally grown fresh basil is available, use the basil instead of the flat-leaf parsley. This dish is best if you can prepare it beforehand and let it cool, reheating it immediately before you serve it.