You can't tell it by her married name, but Bowling Green's Dina Hillmann is a south Jersey girl with family roots firmly in the rich soil of Italy.
So, when she offers to share with you her family's treasured recipe for eggplant parmagiano, it's time to sit up straight and pay attention.
The recipe appears a bit more complex than many we've printed in the Cook's Corner, but don't be intimidated. It's not really hard at all if you simply work your way through the recipe in careful steps. A little frying, a little mixing, a little baking and you've got a special-occasion entree that will have guests kicking up their heels.
"My mom is an awesome cook. I call her, like, the Houdini of the Kitchen. With just the ingredients in the home she can make a gourmet meal," says Hillmann, the former Dina Borrelli.
"We probably had (eggplant parmagiano) a couple times a month, growing up. It was just a staple."
She offers that fact as proof positive that culinarily, "I was spoiled growing up!"
By contrast, Hillmann says, "I make it more like on weekends."
"I make it for friends a lot. We've cooked it for Christmas dinner; we've cooked it for Easter dinner.
"Easter is a hard time to have family make it" from their homes on the East Coast, "so we usually have friends over and I'll often make eggplant parmagiano."
She grew up near the Jersey shore, about a half hour outside Philadelphia, and both parents are 100 percent Italian.
But Hillmann's husband, with his German name, is also a handy cook and faithful helper in making the parmagiano. That's because "my husband's mother's side is from Sicily."
The pair, now parents of sons ages 9 and 6, and a daughter, 5, met while students at Ball State University in Indiana.
"I was in a class with him and one day he said he was craving eggplant parmagiano."
Hillmann could relate. There just seemed no way to find authentically cooked Italian dishes in the Midwest. So she took pity on him.
"I said 'Oh, I can make that!'"
Her little boast turned into a tradition of cooking with a group of student friends one weekend each month. Six years later, the two cooking "buddies" were married.
As a child, Hillman was the offspring in the family who would "just hang out in the kitchen" taking in everything her mother was doing.
"But it wasn't until I was on my own that I really started cooking. I just craved the food I grew up with" and couldn't find it in the flatlands of Indiana and Ohio "so I was forced to make it myself."
She got her bachelor's from Old Dominion University in Virginia and a master's in sport psychology from Ball State.
"That was what brought me out to the Midwest. My husband was working at Notre Dame. Then, in the spring of 2001, he got a job at BGSU as director of athletic strength and conditioning. This was his first head job" so the two were excited to make the move.
At the time, Hillmann had been coaching field hockey full-time at Ball State, "so I quit the year we got married.
"I took a total of six years off from coaching. Once our littlest one hit preschool last year, I got the coaching bug again."
Now she works as an off-season coach for the Futures program through the U.S. Field Hockey Association. "I do that on the weekends, March to the end of May, in Ann Arbor."
Busy as she is, she hasn't let her kitchen skills deteriorate.
What does she like about the eggplant parmagiano?
"It's just comfort food!"
First of all, it features her mother's stock marinara sauce, which she also uses in a host of other Italian dishes.
"I fry (the eggplant pieces) up so quick, and the heat is so high, it really doesn't soak up the grease that much. If I ate it every day I might have to make a healthier (baked) version, but, as often as I do it, I figure I'm not gonna mess with the recipe."
She tried baking the eggplant on a cookie sheet one time, instead of the frying method, "but it just wasn't the same."
1 large eggplant
3 or 4 eggs
2 tablespoons milk
2 tablespoons Parmesian or Romano Cheese
Salt and pepper to taste
Italian seasoned or plain breadcrumbs (as needed)
8-oz. ball of part skim mozzarella cheese (or maybe a little more)
Vegetable oil for frying
4 28-oz. cans of crushed tomatoes (for eggplant and pasta if having it on the side)
Extra virgin olive oil
2-3 cloves garlic (whole or minced)
3 or 4 fresh basil leaves or 1 teaspoon dried basil (or as much as you like)
Preheat oven 350 degrees.
* Prepare eggplant:
In a small bowl, beat together eggs, milk, parm cheese, salt and pepper.
Pour bread crumbs into shallow bowl or dish.
Cut off ends of eggplant, peel skin and cut into 1/4 inch round slices.
Dip slices of eggplant one at a time into egg mixture and then place in bread crumbs, generously coating both sides and put to the side.
In a large non-stick frying pan, heat about 1/2 inch of oil so the eggplant sizzles when placed in the oil (high heat). Fry both sides until golden brown and lay flat on paper towels to drain.
* Prepare cheese:
Thinly slice entire ball of mozzarella cheese and put to the side.
* Prepare Marinara sauce:
Cover bottom of a medium, heavy duty sauce pan/pot with olive oil. Saute garlic cloves (whole or minced), salt and pepper on medium heat until just turning light brown. Add cans of tomatoes, more salt and pepper and basil. Simmer for about 30 minutes. Once the sauce starts to bubble lower the heat to keep at a simmer. Hint: If sauce seems too thin, leave lid off to thicken. If sauce seems too thick, add a little water using empty cans of tomatoes.
In a 13x9 pan:
Layer of sauce covering bottom of 13x9 pan
Layer of fried eggplant (there will be gaps)
Layer of mozzarella cheese (cheese rounds can be slightly overlapping)
Thin layer of sauce over the cheese
Second layer of eggplant
Second layer of cheese
Second layer of sauce
Third layer of eggplant
End the layering with sauce on top of the last layer of eggplant and sprinkle grated parm cheese or romano over the top (cheese will not burn while baking in oven).
Bake uncovered for about 30 minutes or until you see a good bubble along the sides.
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