Chef Natasha Hunter
by Asha Ellison | photographs by Justin Driscoll
The love that grows through cooking for others is sometimes invisible to the eye but never to the soul.
To plan and prepare a satisfying dish, delectable dessert or even someone’s favorite snack requires thoughtfulness, intentionality and care. It also takes one of the most precious commodities in the world — time. Cooking for others is an effort that shows how much the cook or baker cares for those on the receiving end of their gifts. It’s how some people build community, and how others find home.
Chef Natasha Hunter knows this personally. When the regional kitchen manager for Charlotte’s five Rhino Market locations moved to the Queen City with her family from upstate New York at age 10, she saw firsthand how her mother used her cooking talents to feed neighbors and establish bonds.
“One of my early memories in the South is my mom making her eggplant Parmesan for the kids in the neighborhood,” Hunter says. “[They] would come over to eat, not even knowing what they were eating — they just knew they loved it.”
Cooking, also a talent of Hunter’s father, eventually became a passion of hers and led her to earn a culinary degree from Johnson & Wales University in Miami.
“Now, I’m the cook in my family,” Hunter says. “I cook for all the major family functions, from reunions and baby showers to the holidays.” It’s a labor Hunter loves because it brings people together, just like her mom’s eggplant Parmesan.
“My mom’s eggplant Parmesan sticks with me today because my friends still talk about it — they all have had it, and they love it. It makes people put down their phones, moves them away from their computers and brings them together — even if for a little while.”
If you’re looking to bring a hearty, warm and filling dish to the table this holiday season, Hunter invites you to revel in the comfort of her momma’s eggplant Parmesan.
Momma’s Eggplant Parmesan
Cook time: 45 minutes
2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons black pepper
2 teaspoons crushed red peppers
2 teaspoons garlic powder
2 teaspoons Italian seasoning
1 cup flour
1 cup Italian breadcrumbs
1 cup panko breadcrumbs
2-3 cups marinara sauce
3-4 fresh mozzarella balls
3-4 medium eggplants
1 cup chiffonade basil
1/2 cup grated Parmesan
3-4 large eggs
oil for frying
- Preheat the oven to 400 degrees and prepare a pan on the stovetop with oil for frying.
- Peel the eggplants and cut them into 1/4-inch rounds.
- For the dredge, assemble three small to medium bowls. In one bowl, scramble the eggs. In the second bowl, combine breadcrumbs with 1 teaspoon of each of the dry seasonings. In the third bowl, combine the flour and the remainder of the seasonings.
- Slice the mozzarella balls into thin circles. Turn the burner to medium-high heat to prepare for frying.
- Fry the eggplant on both sides until golden brown and place on a paper towel or cooling rack to drain.
- While frying the eggplant, grease a 9×9 baking dish. Layer the fried eggplant similar to a lasagna in the baking dish, starting with sauce on the bottom followed by eggplant, a blend of the mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses, and basil. Finish with sauce, and set aside some of the cheese for the top.
- Place the layered dish in the preheated oven and bake for 15-20 minutes. Remove from the oven and top the dish with remaining cheese. Return the dish to the oven and bake until the cheese is golden brown.
- Remove from the oven, let rest for at least 10 minutes and enjoy! SP
Note: The photographs here reflect a variation of the dish.