Swap In Zucchini For A Fresh Take On Eggplant Parmesan

Looking for a summery, fresh take on eggplant parmesan? Reach for zucchini to breathe some new life into the classic recipe. Like eggplant, zucchini can be sliced into rounds or long strips for easy stacking in a casserole dish. When baked, it can likewise soak up delicious flavors from the tomato sauce and creates a nice, tender contrast to the crisp bubbled cheese on top. You will have to make a few adjustments for success, but it's worth it to enjoy the unique qualities zucchini adds to the dish.

One of the biggest differences between zucchini and eggplant is the texture of the two veggies. Whereas zucchini is tender while retaining a crisp bite, eggplant cooks into a dense, creamy texture. Both vegetables tend to be slightly sweet, but eggplant has an earthy flavor, while zucchini brings in more bright vegetal notes. This means that zucchini parmesan will have a snappier bite and a lighter flavor an eggplant version.

A few more differences lie in the preparation. Eggplants have thicker skin that can be unpleasant to eat, so peeling them before cooking is usually best. Zucchini, on the other hand, has very thin skin, so you can skip this step and cook it without peeling. Also, zucchini has a similar cooking time to eggplant, so you can bake them in roughly the same way.

Preparing zucchini takes a few extra steps

The main pitfall to consider when frying zucchini is sogginess: Like eggplant, zucchini is packed with moisture, and that water is squeezed out as it cooks, which can soften the breading. 

To combat this, slice the zucchini and generously salt the pieces to draw out moisture, and let them drain in a colander. Doing this will ensure a crunchy crust that can stand up to the tomato sauce in the dish, once everything is baked. The zucchini itself will also become firmer and less likely to turn mushy or break apart when layering the casserole. Be sure to gently yet thoroughly pat each slice dry before dredging, so the coating doesn't come off.

When it comes time to bread the zucchini, use panko breadcrumbs, as they are crispier than traditional breadcrumbs, which can be a big help with this watery veggie. If you prefer to avoid the mess of deep frying, try shallow frying the zucchini using less oil. Or, you can bake the breaded slices to crisp them up, before layering them with the other ingredients and baking again to finish. Use a relatively hot oven so that the coating crisps up properly. Baking is a more hands-off endeavor, while frying can give you a more crunchy golden-brown crust. 

Putting everything together for perfect zucchini parmesan

The other main ingredients for this dish are the sauce and the cheese. Both of these can be treated the same way as in eggplant parmesan. You can pull out all the stops and make an eight-hour recipe for marinara, but this dish will also work well with a quicker-cooking basic tomato sauce. Even a jar of high-quality sauce will work in a pinch, too, as all the ingredients here mean the red sauce doesn't take center stage.

For the cheese, reach for low moisture-mozzarella, rather than fresh. Low moisture mozz melts much better than its fresh cousin, which is packed with water and won't create the stretchy, browned layer you want. Parmesan cheese is also a must to add some extra savory flavors (and ensure the dish lives up to its name). In contrast to the mozzarella, this time it's actually worth it to splurge on a higher-quality option — maybe go for Parmigiano-Reggiano instead of generic parmesan in a green shaker bottle.

One easy mistake to make when assembling the casserole is adding too much sauce and cheese between the slices of zucchini. This can cause the delicate layers to collapse into a puddle, instead of forming a pretty-looking and delicious casserole. Instead, exercise restraint and use thin layers of sauce, cheese, and breaded zucchini, so that the final dish can support its own weight.