Parmigiana is one of those interesting dishes that turns out to have very different origins than what you might expect. Even though it is strongly associated with 1950’s Italian American cuisine, there is a lot more to it. Armed with some new information, I started imagining some crazy new possibilities.
When we talk about Parmigiana, we are talking about a thin fillet, usually a meat cutlet, that is breaded, fried or sauteed, layered with cheese and tomato sauce, and then baked. Interestingly, this dish didn’t originally include chicken or veal, but eggplant and it did not always include breading or tomato sauce.
Even though many believe the name, which means “Parma style” it is believed the dish originated in Southern Italy, probably Sicily, Naples, or Campania. Some believe the word “parmigiana” is in fact a mispronunciation of a Sicilian word that refers to the slats of wood in shutters because the eggplant overlapped in a similar manner when cooked in this dish.
The first mention of something resembling eggplant parmigiana actually comes from 1387, though it was not a recipe and little is known about it. However, in 1786, an eggplant dish seasoned with butter, herbs, cinnamon and other spices, parmigiano cheese and covered in a cream sauce made with egg yolks was published by Neapolitan chef Vincenzo Corrado. The version we think of today was first published by Ippolito Cavalcanti in 1837 most likely because tomatoes were just becoming more popular in Italy at this time.
It wasn’t until an increase of Italian immigrants to America in the 1800’s that parmigiano started to include chicken and veal. This is my favorite recipe for Chicken Parmigiana.
For our purposes I decided to make some limitations to this dish or risk including too many things as parmigiana. It had to have a sauce, so Wiener Schnitzel is out. It had to have cheese, so Pork Tonkatsu is out, and it had to use bread crumbs rather than flour or batter so Chicken Fried Steak is out. Other than that, the “cutlet” used, the type of sauce, and the type of cheese was completely open leading to some very interesting variations. Even though eggplant is the original, it has been surpassed in America by chicken, so that is the recipe I will start with.
Italian-American Chicken Parmigiana
- 2 minced garlic cloves
- ½ tsp. dried oregano
- 28 oz. crushed tomatoes
- 2 Tbsp. chopped fresh basil
- 2 boneless chicken breasts, each cut into two thin fillets
- 4 oz. shredded whole-milk mozzarella
- 1 egg
- 1 Tbsp. flour
- 1 ½ oz. freshly grated parmesan cheese
- 1 cup panko
- ½ tsp. garlic powder
- ¼ tsp. pepper
- olive oil for sauteing
1. saute minced garlic, ¼ tsp. oregano, ¾ tsp. salt over medium heat until fragrant and sizzling. Add in crushed tomatoes, reduce heat so it is barely simmering and cook for 20 minutes. Stir in basil and salt and pepper to taste
2. sprinkle chicken cutlets with a little salt and let sit. Whisk egg and flour together in shallow bowl. Combine the panko, parmesan cheese, garlic powder, ¼ tsp. dried oregano, and pepper in a shallow bowl. Dredge each cutlet in the egg mixture and then in the panko mixture and set aside.
3. Heat enough oil to cover pan bottom over medium high heat until flour sizzles when added. Saute for 2 minutes per side, until golden brown. Sprinkle with cheese and broil until cheese is melted and spotty brown. Top with some of the tomato sauce and serve, garnishing with more basil if desired.
To be honest there are almost no variations on this dish that deviate much from the original. Sure, you can substitute veal or eggplant for the chicken, or add bacon or ham to the mix like they do in Australia, but it is all still clearly Italian. So when I found Teeside Parmo, a Northern British variation, I was pretty excited to try it. It is often made with chicken, but is also made with pork, so that is how I made it.
- 1 pork tenderloin, cut into 4 pieces and flattened with a meat mallet
- 1 egg
- 1 cup panko
- 1 cup milk
- 2 cardamom pods or ¼ tsp. ground cardamom
- 4 whole cloves
- 1 tsp. peppercorns or coarse ground pepper
- ½ sweet or yellow onion, chopped
- 1 bay leaf
- ½ stick butter
- 2 Tbsp. flour plus more for dusting the pork
- ½ oz. freshly grated parmesan cheese
- 4 oz. sharp cheddar cheese, shredded
1. Microwave the milk, cardamom, cloves, pepper, onion, and bay leaf until very hot, but not boiling, about 3 minutes. Melt the butter in a saucepan over medium heat. Add the flour and cook one minute. Pour the milk through a very fine-mesh strainer into the roux whisking as you pour. Whisk in the parmesan and add more milk if too thick and salt and pepper to taste. Set the sauce aside while you prepare the rest of the dish.
2. Salt the pork cutlets, then dredge the in flour, then egg, then breadcrumbs. Saute in some vegetable oil over medium high heat until golden brown on each side, about 2 minutes per side. Top with cheddar cheese and broil until cheese is melted and spotty brown. Top with sauce and serve, garnishing with some parsley if desired.
For my first experiment, I decided to harken back to the original parmigiana, but think about other cuisines known for both their use of eggplant and their excellent sauces. Using a Chinese eggplant stir-fry as my inspiration, I decided to do a new take on an eggplant parmigiana. My greatest hurdle, though, was cheese. China is not well known for its use of cheese, so a bit of research was required. I soon learned that the Bai people of Yunnan province are known for a cheese called Rubing, which is similar to paneer or queso blanco but with a goat’s milk flavor. It is a non-melting cheese, meaning it can be grilled. Since this would be far too esoteric a cheese to find, I decided to substitute a more common cheese, halloumi, instead. Treat it just like a grilled-cheese sandwich, cooking it in a nonstick skillet over medium heat until golden brown on each side. In this picture, though, I am sad to say I used some of the mozzarella I already had.
Yunnan-style eggplant parmigiana
- 2 medium-sized eggplants cut into ½ inch rounds, salted and set in a colander for an hour
- 8 oz. halloumi, sliced thin, and cooked on a skillet until browned
- 2 egg
- 2 Tbsp. flour
- 1 ½ cups panko
- olive oil for sauteing
- 1 Tbsp. rice vinegar, or white vinegar
- 1 tsp. Asian chili sauce, like sriracha
- 1 Tbsp. cornstarch
- ½ cup chicken stock
- 3 Tbsp. soy sauce
- 3 Tbsp. honey
1. Whisk egg and flour together in shallow bowl. Put panko in another shallow bowl. Place eggplant slices between two thick layers of paper towels and gently press to dry the slices. Dredge each slice in the egg mixture and then in the panko mixture and set aside.
2. Heat enough oil to cover pan bottom over medium high heat until flour sizzles when added. Saute for 2 minutes per side, until golden brown, and set aside.
3. Whisk vinegar, chili sauce, cornstarch, chicken stock, soy sauce, and honey until combined and cook in a small saucepan over medium heat until thickened, adding more cornstarch if necessary.
4. Top each cooked eggplant slice with a slice of cooked cheese and some of the sauce and serve.
For my final experiment, I will admit I went a little off the rails. I had already done chicken, pork, and eggplant. I didn’t really feel like repeating any of those and I didn’t want to do veal. Then, my mother who was in town visiting suggested crab cakes. I immediately dismissed the idea for being too far from the original. I really wanted to do something mediterranean. But then I found and modified this recipe for mediterranean crab cakes and it was a resounding success. It also inspired me to do a series on seafood cakes sometime in the future, but I’m getting ahead of myself. If doing crabcakes is too far gone for you to still be parmigiana, just bread a fish cutlet instead.
Mediterranean Crab Cake Parmigiana
- 1 medium cucumber, peeled, halved, seeded, and then shredded on a box grater
- 1 cup of plain Greek yogurt
- 2 Tbsp. minced fresh dill
- 1 Tbsp. minced fresh mint
- 4 oz. crumbled feta
- 6 minced garlic cloves
- 2 cups tomatoes
- 2 Tbsp. basil
- 2 Tbsp. chives
- 1 Tbsp. honey
- 4 Tbsp. dijon
- 2 Tbsp. sherry vinegar
- 1 head of fennel, minced
- 1 red onion, minced
- zest and juice of 1 lemon
- ¾ cup mayonnaise
- ¼ cup sour cream
- 2 lbs crabmeat
- 3 cups panko (more if needed
- oil for sauteing
1. Mix the shredded cucumber, yogurt, dill, mint, feta, and 1 minced garlic clove and set aside. In a food processor, puree the tomatoes, basil, chives, honey, 1 Tbsp. dijon, vinegar, and 2 minced garlic cloves and set aside.
2. Saute the fennel, onion, and 3 cloves garlic over medium heat until soft and then let cool to room temperature. Mix the cooled fennel/onion mix with 3 Tbsp. dijon, lemon juice and zest, mayonnaise, and sour cream. Add 1 cup of the panko. Gently add the crabmeat and more breadcrumbs if needed to make it bind.
3. Form the crab cakes into 3” wide 1” thick patties. In a shallow dish add the other 2 cups of panko. Gently press the patties in the panko to coat them. Freeze the crab cakes for 1 hour on a parchment lined baking sheet.
4. Saute the crab cakes over medium high heat until golden browned, gently flipping them (using two spatulas if needed for stability).
5. Top the crab cakes with a little bit of of the feta mixture and the tomato sauce and serve.
What’s your favorite version of parmigiana? Have you seen any other variations I didn’t mention Let me know if you have any good ideas in the comments.