A couple of years ago, I assembled a squash gratin for a friends’ Thanksgiving. It was this one, and it smelled good as I cooked it; I browned onions and softened the butternut squash and added nutmeg and cream and Comté, then I covered it in foil and stuck it in the fridge. Then, my grandpa died, and I was no longer going to the party. The foiled gratin went into the freezer, where it stayed until I moved apartments two months later. I felt crazy packing it up to move it. It was exactly the kind of thing my mother would never do. “Toss it,” she says, about the ends of sauces or a stray vegetable or any food items inconveniencing life, but I let it inconvenience me, and it anchored an Ikea bag full of other condiments and spices that did the same.
Two days later, I pulled it out of my new freezer and cooked it to serve with a roast chicken and some feety French wine. It was so good. The time in the freezer, I have come to believe, does something mysterious to these kinds of dishes; sauces, soups, stews, and gratins benefit wildly from a good rest.
The flavors marry, and become bolder, and for the kind of food I love to cook, which is simple and demands all ingredients speak for themselves, it’s the best kitchen hack I know. A pesto that was truthfully mediocre going in last summer emerged, in February, as a summery basil sun blast from the August farmers market. A ratatouille that I tossed with pasta was spicy and complex, not the sort of muddy hippy food I remembered packing up a couple months earlier.
But the undisputed King of the Freezer is eggplant parm, and I have the controlled experiment to prove it. I assembled two eggplant parms one Saturday this summer, then stuck one in the freezer, and one in the fridge, where it waited for 24 hours–a decent rest, itself. The Sunday eggplant was good; we finished a proper-sized one between two with a bottle of frappato and La Notte, and it was as great as it sounds.
But then, about a month later, I baked the frozen one, and it was better.
Eggplant Parm, or Melanzane alla Parmigiana
Adapted from Lalli Canneri, Marcella Hazan, and Rachel Roddy
- 4 medium eggplants
- Olive oil, for frying
- 4 cups pomodoro (below)
- 1 lb. fresh mozzarella, sliced very thinly
- 1.5-2 cups grated parmigiano-reggiano
- Bunch of basil leaves
Slice eggplants into rounds. Lay one layer in a colander, sprinkle with salt, then add next layer. Leave to sit for a few hours, ideally while you go to the beach.
Blot the eggplant dry with kitchen or paper towels. Heat a few inches of olive oil in a large saute pan over med-high to high heat. Test oil with a piece of bread or a small piece of eggplant to see if it sizzles. Fry the eggplant in batches, turning each piece once, until golden on both sides. Lift to drain on a surface with paper towels.
Preheat the oven to 400F (200C).
To assemble, layer some eggplant slices on the bottom of a baking dish, then spread some tomato sauce, not too thickly, then mozzarella, parmigiano-reggiano, and finally a few basil leaves. Repeat until you’ve used all the eggplant, ending with a layer of eggplant and a generous sprinkling of parmigiano.
If ignoring the central thesis of this blog post and serving right away, bake for about 25 minutes, until everything is bubbling and the top is slightly browned. Then be sure to let it rest for at least 15 minutes so everything can settle.
Otherwise, foil it up after sprinkling with parmigiano, stick it in the freezer, and when ready to serve, bake for a little longer–about 35 mins, looking for the browning. Same thing, re: resting.
Serve with a spicy southern Italian red, and make everyone weep with joy.
- 1 can whole peeled San Marzano tomatoes, or about 3 pounds fragrant August ones from the farmers market
- ⅓ cup olive oil, plus more for serving
- 2 tbs. chopped onion
- Handful fresh basil
If using fresh tomatoes, peel by cutting a small X at the bottom of each one, then dropping them into boiling water for about 15 seconds and plunging into ice water. The skins should come off relatively easily.
Heat olive oil in a saute pan over medium-low heat, and add onion. Let cook until soft but not even close to browning. Add tomatoes (whole) and a few basil leaves, then season lightly with salt, and stir. Raise heat to medium and let simmer for 30-40 mins, breaking up tomatoes with a wooden spoon as it goes along.
Using an immersion blender, food mill, or food processor, blend the sauce until it is creamy and turns rosy but still has some texture. Taste for seasoning and add more salt and basil if needed.