From David Benjamin, former chef and co-owner of Vera Luce Farm near Hillsborough. He recommends using Sicilian eggplant for this dish. If you use jarred sauce, don’t add the 1/4 teaspoon salt.
4 pounds eggplant, trimmed
1 1/2 tablespoons, plus 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt, divided, plus additional for layering
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 cups diced yellow onion
4 cups (32 ounces) tomato sauce
3 cups white rice flour, divided
1 cup grated Pecorino Romano cheese
1 pound fresh mozzarella, thinly sliced
2-3 cups cooking oil, such as canola or grapeseed
5 ounces grated Parmesan cheese
Chopped fresh basil, optional garnish
Slice eggplant into 1/2 inch rounds; use 1 1/2 tablespoons kosher salt to salt eggplant and place on cooling rack on top of rimmed baking sheet. Let stand to drain for at least 1 hour.
Heat olive oil in a large sauce pot over low heat. Add 2 cups diced yellow onion and 1/4 teaspoon salt and saute until softened; stir frequently to avoid caramelization, about 5-7 minutes. Add tomato sauce, season with salt and simmer on low until ready to use.
Prepare breading in three separate bowls or pie plates: 1 1/2 cups white rice flour in first bowl, 5 lightly whisked eggs in the second and 1 1/2 cups white rice flour fully combined with 1 cup grated Pecorino Romano cheese in the third.
Bread eggplant rounds: Use one hand to handle the dry ingredients and one for the wet ingredients. One at a time, place each eggplant round into the white rice flour, then into the egg and finally into the white rice flour/Pecorino Romano cheese mix. Once breaded, place the round onto a plate or tray that has been dusted with white rice flour. Repeat this step until all eggplant pieces are breaded.
Heat oven to 350 degrees.
Heat 1/2 cup cooking oil in an 8-inch saute pan or cast iron skillet over medium heat. Saute eggplant for several minutes on each side until golden brown. Remove eggplant rounds from pan and place on a rimmed baking sheet. Continue until all eggplant is done. Change out oil and wipe out pan after every two batches of eggplant to reduce burnt flour in the pan. Once all eggplant is sauteed, place in oven and bake for 15 minutes.
Place 1 cup tomato sauce in bottom of a 9-inch-by-13-inch baking dish. Place the sautéed eggplant rounds into the baking dish, overlapping the rounds just enough to fully cover the bottom of the dish. Top eggplant with 1 cup tomato sauce. Place half of the thinly sliced fresh mozzarella on top of sauced eggplant and season with salt. Repeat these steps again to build another layer of eggplant, sauce and mozzarella and season with salt. Place the remaining eggplant rounds on top of the second layer and season with salt.
Bake for 1 hour. Remove from the oven and let stand for 20 to 25 minutes. Cut into 6-8 pieces. Garnish with 1/4 cup warm tomato sauce and a generous amount of freshly grated Parmesan cheese and fresh basil.