There are many variations of Parmigiana––either vegetarian or with swordfish added––but this last one is what I’m presenting today. A Sicilian classic, Parmigiana ì piscìspata, is mostly found in homes rather than in restaurants.
I grew up eating this dish especially during the hot Sicilian summers when the best juicy eggplants are harvested and when swordfish is fished with traditional wooden boats called feluccas. They have been fished this way since ancient times and have become an integral part of much Sicilian cuisine.
Made with alternate layers of swordfish, fried eggplant, parmesan, and tomato sauce––flavored with onions, garlic, and basil and spiced up with some red chili flakes––Swordfish Parmigiana is an interesting variation of the more famous eggplant dish.
It can be served hot, warm, room temperature, or simply cold from the fridge. Either way I think it’s a delicious dish: the slightly spicy tomato sauce, the smoothness of the fried eggplant, and the dryness of the swordfish altogether in one dish are a joy for the palate!
The term Parmigiana, according to some, derives from the Sicilian word “parmiciana”, plausibly derived from the Latin “parma” (shield), which is also known as the wood that makes up window blinds (that reminds us of the way in which the sliced fried eggplant is arranged in stacked layers). Also, there is a theory that would claim the paternity of the recipe to be eastern Sicilian, drawing its strength from the fact that the dish is called “eggplant parmigiana” (Parmigiana di Melanzane) not Melanzane alla Parmigiana, which implies Emilia-Romagna origins, since in this part of Italy the main noun is “parmigiana” and eggplant is the specification. The difference, though language-wise subtle, is crucial.
And now the recipe…
Ingredients – serves 8/10
1 ¼ lb swordfish steaks thinly sliced on the thick side (strips)
3-4 Italian eggplant, peeled and sliced lengthwise, about ½ inch thick
3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
One 32-oz can strained tomatoes
½ teaspoon red chili flakes
2 cloves garlic, halved
1 large onion, quartered
¼ cup basil (save some for decoration)
1 cup grated Parmigiano or pecorino or caciocavallo cheese
Salt and black pepper to taste
Oil for frying
Place the eggplant slices on a rack over a cookie sheet. Sprinkle the eggplant with salt on both sides and let them sit for about 1 hour. Rinse the eggplant slices, gently squeeze the water out, dry them very well on a paper towel. Fry the eggplant until golden on both sides. Drain on a paper towel. Repeat until all the eggplant is cooked.
In a saucepan heat the olive oil then add the red chili flakes and sweat the onions and garlic for about 5 minutes until soft. Add the tomatoes. Add basil leaves. Simmer for about 45 minutes or until the sauce is no longer watery. Season with salt only toward the end, this will prevent splashing. Remove the onions, garlic, and basil and set the tomato sauce aside.
In a quarter sheet pan start by spreading a veil of tomato sauce at the bottom of the baking dish then begin layering up the ingredients: Parmigiano – eggplant – swordfish (add salt and black pepper on top) – tomato sauce – Parmigiano. Bake at 375F for 15 minutes. Let it sit for 20 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Nino Barbalace is a Sicilian-born and Boston-adopted personal chef. He grew up in Sicily where he acquired the passion for cooking from his aunt Gianna who taught him the secrets of the kitchen, who passed on to him her true love for cooking and the idea that a dish is not “just a dish,” rather “food for the soul!” After earning a Master Degree and a PhD in History and Conservation of Historic Heritage and working many years in Italy and in the U.S., Nino sought change wishing to work with food. He left the academic life to dedicate himself full time to cooking. After graduating from The Cambridge School of Culinary Arts Nino started his own company Sicilicity willing to bring to his clients’ homes the sweet-sour-spicy-colorful taste of Sicily!