Classic recipes reimagined have the power to surprise, and delight, unsuspecting guests
I've seen it happen many times in my restaurants, and you've no doubt been on the receiving end of this phenomenon: Guests order a classic dish, something they've enjoyed elsewhere many times before, and when it arrives it looks nothing like what they'd been expecting.
The first reaction may be puzzlement or consternation or delight -- or a combination of all three. But most of the time they'll eventually inspect the dish more closely and realize that it looks and smells delicious. Then they taste it-- and realize it's even better than they had imagined.
That's a big part of the pleasure for a chef, or a home cook, in reimagining a classic recipe. Once you've decided to come up with a new version of a familiar dish, all the rules -- except, of course, the fundamental ones of good cooking -- no longer apply. You can alter -- or maybe I should say "tweak," because the changes are often subtler -- the ingredients, the way you prep and cook them, and how you present them. Even the subtlest changes can add up to a dramatic new version of a dish that better suits the way people like to eat today.
Take, for example, the recipe I share with you here for Eggplant alla Parmigiana, as it's prepared by executive chef Vincenzo Scarmiglia at my Cucina by Wolfgang Puck in Las Vegas. Ask most people who say they know this Italian classic to describe it, and they'll tell you it's an oven-baked casserole consisting of multiple layers of breaded and deep-fried eggplant, tomato sauce, mozzarella and Parmesan, served occasionally in individual baking dishes but more often cut into generous squares like a lasagna.
Your mouth is probably watering at that description, as mine is writing it. But let's also admit that most versions of the dish are heavy, and the flavors blend together so much during baking that you sometimes can't tell the eggplant from the breading, cheese or sauce.
That's why I like how Vincenzo prepares it. He first makes an intensely flavorful tomato-basil-garlic sauce -- a staple in many of my restaurants. Then, he carefully coats the eggplant slices to keep them from absorbing too much oil during their brief frying. Finally, he tops each slice with its own dollop of sauce and cheese and pops a trayful of individual rounds under the broiler until the cheese melts, before arranging several slices side by side atop more sauce on dinner plates, topping each serving with a mound of simple baby arugula salad.
The results taste exactly like a great Eggplant alla Parmigiana -- but cleaner, simpler and more focused than ever. I hope you enjoy this recipe, and that it will inspire you to try reimagining other classics in a similar spirit.
EGGPLANT ALLA PARMIGIANA