Growing up in a New York Italian family was an experience I wouldn’t trade for anything. At every family gathering there are loud enthusiastic conversations, exuberant kissing and hugging, and everyone always congregates in the kitchen which always smells spaghetti sauce, roasted peppers, and olive oil. There we stand around the counter, munching drippy mozzarella cheese on toasted bread, cutting huge wheels of Locatelli with guitar strings (well, how would you do it?), popping olives, and making memories.Yes, I pretty much loved growing up.
I never got to know my Italian grandma, but her heritage is still very much alive in her descendants. From the pictures I’ve seen, I know my dad carries her features and that she gave me her dark hair, short legs, and olive skin. My grandpa tells me how they met after the war as he tenderly strokes her picture, and my aunts reminisce about her as they stir a bowl of steaming pasta. And through their stories, I’ve grown to love her.
Last summer, our big Italian family stayed in a huge house at the Outer Banks. There were many loud enthusiastic conversations, lots of exuberant hugging and kissing, and since the sun was scorching out and the ocean freezing cold, everyone congregated in the kitchen.One of my aunts brought along photo albums and Grandma’s recipe box and we all gathered around to relive preserved memories. Fingering through the frail, stain-splattered, well-worn recipes, cookbook pages, and shopping lists written in the faint script of my grandmother was like opening a treasure box. Her instructions for Italian egg-rolls, chamelli cookies and stuffed peppers were connections to my past, little clues into a woman who has passed on to me her love of family and food.
When I started to eat healthier, I did not want to give up the foods I grew up eating, that are so tied in with my ancestry of Italian deli owners. So I began experimenting, and recreating old favorites while keeping the flavors I loved. Kind of like how each generation changes hairstyles and locations, but maintains the family heritage — no matter how far we grandchildren roam, we still gather for loud conversations, exuberant kissing and hugging, and memory making in the kitchen.
Not Your Italian Grandma’s Eggplant Parmesan
- 2 medium eggplant, sliced thin
- 6 slices stale wheat bread
- ¼ c. ground flax seeds, divided
- ¼ c. sunflower seeds
- ¼ c. wheat germ
- 2 t. garlic salt
- 2 t. basil
- 1 c. almond milk
- 2 T. hummus
- 2 medium tomatoes
- ½ c. tomato sauce (Quick homemade sauce: Sautee tomatoes, onion, and bell peppers in olive oil until very very soft and the juices have leaked)
Cheez sauce: Blend all ingredients until smooth.
- 1/3 c. hummus
- ¾ c. silken tofu
- ½ c. almond milk
- 1 t. garlic salt
- 1 t. parsley
- Preheat oven to 400. Spray a cookie sheet with non stick cooking spray. Prepare Cheez sauce by blending all ingredients together until smooth. Set aside.
- In a food processor, grind bread, 2 T. flax and sunflower seeds, wheat germ, garlic salt and basil until breadcrumb consistency. Set aside.
- For binding mixture, blend hummus, milk, and 2 T. flax seed in a blender until smooth.
- Dip eggplant slices into the hummus mixture and then coat with breadcrumbs. Arrange on a cookie sheet in a single layer. Bake for 15 minutes on each side, until golden brown.
- In a small casserole dish, arrange half of eggplant in a single (or slightly overlapping) layer. Spread ¼ tomato sauce over eggplant. Then spread about half of prepared“cheez” sauce over the sauce. Do one more layer of eggplant, sauce, and “cheez.” Top with sliced tomato, a sprinkle of parsley and oregano, and any left over cheez. Bake for 20-30 minutes or until cheez is somewhat set and casserole is warm throughout.
My Italian grandma would have served her eggplant parmesan with a side of spaghetti. I ate mine with a salad. But while I was cooking, all the females of our family were in the kitchen together, laughing, spilling breadcrumbs and sneaking spoonfuls of sauce. I thought of my Grandma cooking with her two sisters and four daughters, creating delicious meals as gifts of love for her family. And if she could see me carrying on that tradition, even if I left off the mozzarella and pasta, I think she would be pleased.