While staying with family for a while in New Jersey, I can now say that I had the pleasure and honor of several meals at Red Bank's now-shuttered Basil T's, a small, atmospherically-lit (read:dark) Italian restaurant with homemade pasta and several cult favorite dishes amongst the locals, one of which being the inspiration for the recipe below.
Basil T's was a go-to for parties large and small, and was family-owned and family-friendly. While I can't say I tried many dishes on the menu (because one of their most popular dishes became my go-to order, despite weak promises in the car on the way that I'd finally try something else! Yeah right.), I have to imagine that everything was wonderful and hearty in the way that a good, family-owned Italian restaurant should be.
My favorite dish, introduced to me by my equally-addicted cousin, was the baked ziti melanzane, which translates as a piping hot, massive white ramekin filled with house-made ziti, a rich tomato sauce, and more ricotta and fabulously stringy mozzarella than is probably legal. Each forkful, when drawn from the ramekin, would come away with strings of cheese a-plenty, but this was only half of the treasure of the dish. The real gold (literally and figuratively) was piled on top - crunchy, perfectly-coated bits of eggplant that held an unexpected creaminess within, fried to perfection but never greasy. The best way to enjoy the dish? Eat 1/2 of the eggplant first to expose the pasta, finish the pasta, and enjoy the reward of the remaining eggplant. If you weren't busting at the seams by that point, of course.
After a plethora of failed attempts, we finally pulled the secret from an unnamed party related to the restaurant (identity protected!) that resulted in the perfect balance of crisp exterior and custardy interior: Lemon juice.
While its impossible to believe, that's the secret. Something so easy and that which can be done ahead of time, resulting in a dish worth returning to time and time again. And it makes sense - the acidic nature of the lemon forces water from the eggplant, resulting in the breakdown of its interior fibers, which, when fried, get reduced to creamy happiness. Simple, satisfying, and splurge-worthy.
I hope you enjoy the recipe as much as I do, and have the chance to serve it family-style, because truly, being in the company of loved ones, enjoying a good meal and a good story around the dinner table, is what makes this recipe, and any other, a true gem.
Eggplant Fries, in memoriam of Basil T’s
1 large eggplant
2 cups flour
~2 cups breadcrumbs (homemade is always preferred but not necessary, but seasoning is non-negotiable*)
3 jumbo eggs, or 3-4 large eggs
1 cup grated locatelli cheese, split into one ½ cup portion, and two ¼ cup portions (thereabouts. Eyeball it)
· Skin the eggplant and cut in half lengthwise. Place each half cut-side down on the cutting board, and cut slices, approximately ½’’ thick, from top to bottom. Lay out each slice and cut into rectangular fries, embracing the irregular ones, because an imperfect “rectangular” end has more surface area, and that means more golden brown- breadcrumby goodness in the end.
· Fill a large bowl approximately half-way with cool water and add about 1/3 cup lemon juice. The idea is to create an acidulated water bath to soak the eggplant fries, which will force the water out of the eggplant fries when they are removed, breaking down the fibers on the inside, making them custardy and creamy on the inside, and extra crunchy on the outside when fried.
· Add the eggplant and let soak for at least 2-3 hours – the longer the better, but no longer than overnight. If soaking overnight, keep covered in the refrigerator.
· When you are ready to move forward with fried eggplant glory, prepare your breading mise en place. I prefer a super large bowl for the flour, a shallow pan for the egg-wash, and a large, high-sided pan for the breadcrumbs.
· *A note on breadcrumbs: If you are not using homemade, I prefer using Progresso breadcrumbs for applications where finer breadcrumb coatings lend better to the final product, as they won’t overwhelm the texture, which is the true gem of the recipe. In any event, the breadcrumbs used should be well-seasoned, and a combo of salt-pepper-garlic-onion powders is always a safe bet.
· Crack the eggs into the shallow pan and whisk with a fork until yolk and white are combined. Season with salt and pepper.
· Add the ½ cup portion of cheese to the breadcrumbs, and begin heating about an inch of neutral oil in a large frying pan over medium heat. As you bread the eggplant, the oil will heat. Lastly, before gunking up your hands, prepare a large sheet pan with paper towel for the fries once they have been cooked. Sprinkle the reserved ¼ cup of grated cheese on the paper toweling – it will melt and dissolve into the hot, oily fries as they drain, making for another layer of seasoning.
· Toss a handful of the eggplant fries from the water bath in the flour and coat roughly on all sides. Batter them in the egg next, and then lastly, bread them with the seasoned breadcrumbs. Place breaded fries on a platter to dry, and repeat the process until all fries are floured, egg-battered, and coated completely in breadcrumbs.
· When all fries have been breaded, test the oil with any leftover breadcrumbs. They should begin to fry and cook up as soon as they hit the oil, but they shouldn’t sizzle out of control – if they do, the oil is far too hot. Fry the eggplant until golden brown on all sides and soft to the touch. Allow to drain on the paper towel-lined pan, and as they cool slightly, sprinkle with the remaining cheese.
· Serve alone, with lemon, with a sauce of your choice (if you must), or ala Basil T, piled high on top of a thick, cheesy, piping hot dish of baked ziti, and rejoice in the custardy, crispy complex that is the wonder of fried eggplant.