Eggplant parmesan is a lot of work. Here's a more straightforward version, with the vegetables and meat grilled or broiled instead of breaded and fried. You can skip the chicken if you like, and add other vegetables, such as zucchini and portobello mushrooms; just grill them and layer on top of the eggplant and before the cheese.
For a simple vegetable gratin, omit the tomato sauce and layer any cooked vegetable you like (asparagus, broccoli, cauliflower, artichoke hearts, potatoes, fennel, leeks, spinach, onions, celery root, parsnips, Jerusalem artichokes, winter squash, or sweet potatoes) with the cheese (Gruyere and Swiss are nice alternatives). Finish with the seasoned bread crumb topping for a most excellent crust.
Makes 4 to 6 servings
2 or 3 eggplants (about 2 pounds total), unpeeled, cut crosswise into 1/2-inch slices
1 tablespoon olive oil, plus more for brushing
Freshly ground black pepper
1/2 pound boneless, skinless white meat chicken (breast, cutlets or tenders), pounded to uniform thickness, if necessary, and blotted dry
4 cups all-purpose tomato sauce (recipe follows)
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese, plus more if you like
About 30 fresh basil leaves
2 ounces grated or torn mozzarella cheese (optional)
1 cup bread crumbs
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
If the eggplant is particularly large or full of seeds, sprinkle it with salt and set in a colander for at least 15 and up to 60 minutes. Rinse and pat dry.
Heat a charcoal or gas grill, or the broiler, and move the rack to about 4 inches from the heat source. (You can also use a stovetop grill pan here, heated over medium-high heat.)
Brush the eggplant lightly on both sides with some oil and sprinkle with salt (if you didn't salt it earlier) and pepper. Grill or broil until browned on both sides, turning once or twice and brushing with more oil if the eggplant looks dry. The idea is to keep the eggplant cooking steadily without burning, so adjust the heat and position as needed. The eggplant is usually ready in somewhere between 5 and 10 minutes. When done, set eggplant slices aside.
Cut the chicken so you have 8 or so large pieces. Pound or press them a bit so they're evenly flat. Brush them all over with some oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Grill or broil the chicken, turning once, no more than 3 minutes per side (to check for doneness, cut into a piece with a thin-bladed knife; the center should still be slightly pink). Set the chicken aside.
Lightly oil a 2-quart baking dish, then spoon a layer of the tomato sauce into the bottom. Top with a layer of eggplant, then a sprinkling of Parmesan, then a layer of chicken, and finally a few basil leaves. Repeat until all the ingredients are used. (There will probably be sauce left over; warm it up to pass at the table.)
Toss the remaining Parmesan with the bread crumbs, and the mozzarella if you're using it. Drizzle with 1 tablespoon of olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper, then toss again. Spread the bread-crumb mixture evenly on top of the mozzarella. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, or until the dish is bubbling hot. Serve hot or warm.
All-Purpose Tomato Sauce
Makes about 1 quart
1/4 cup olive oil
1 large onion or 2 medium onions, chopped
About 4 pounds canned whole tomatoes (two 28- or 35-ounce cans), chopped, liquid reserved
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley or basil leaves (optional)
Put the olive oil in a pot over medium heat. When the oil is hot, add the onions, sprinkle with salt and pepper and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft, about 3 minutes. Then add the tomatoes.
Cook, stirring occasionally, until the tomatoes break down and the mixture comes together and thickens a bit, 10 to 15 minutes. For a thinner sauce, add some or all of the reserved liquid and cook for another 5 to 10 minutes; if you want a thick sauce, save it for another use.
Taste, adjust the seasonings and stir in the herbs before using. (You can also let the sauce cool, then cover and refrigerate for up to several days.)