My friend Libby, with help from our friend Sandy, prepared a wonderful aubergine/eggplant gratin for our lunch in the Umbrian countryside towards the end of last September (i.e. in 2017). It was a lovely sunny day, one that allowed us to enjoy the al fresco backdrop to it all, served over what was once an olive millstone.
As we tucked into the dish, we commented appreciatingly about it and drew similarities to the classic Parmigiana di Melanzane.
Sandy was quite amazed at how much oil the sliced rounds of aubergine guzzled as she pan fried them. For the rest, it was a fairly simple dish to prepare. The sauce was made with chopped fresh tomatoes, garlic and olive oil, and the layers were showered with grated parmesan. They are then cooked in the oven until done. Fresh basil added at the very end. And more parmesan can be added to the serving on the individual dish.
Instead, a Parmigiana di Melanzane, a proper one that is, ranks top of the list in the High Maintenance Category of summer recipes. Which is why it is so highly appreciated at the dinner table when a friend or family member serves it and, also, why it can be the cause of much gustatory disappointment when it doesn’t live up to its standards. There can be no cheating when it comes to a good Parmigiana di Melanzane, although variations are admitted (see two links at the bottome of this post). And that means that the slices must be fried in olive oil and not ‘cooked’ in the oven (roasted). When I overhear comments like “Oh, the roasted/grilled version is much lighter and just as good”, I turn my eyes heavenwards or allow myself an inward groan. Lighter it may be but never as good.
The parmigiana di melanzane comes with not a little baggage when it comes to both historical fact and conjecture (not to mention nonsense). Dishes were cooked “alla parmigiana” (i.e. cooked with parmesan and inside a dish that could be placed in an oven) well before aubergines even arrived in Italy. The Latin word “parma” means a shield – and the way the sliced aubergines are set out in the dish does indeed resemble a short of ‘shield’ – so much so that an emiment Italian food historian, Massimo Montanari, reckons that could be behind the naming of the dish. The recipe most likely originated in Naples whose rulers were also those of Sicily until Italy became a nation in 1861 – and that would explain why both lay claim to the orgin of this recipe.
I think I’ll just get on with it now and leave history behind for a bit.
This is how I prepped the aubergines/eggplants – I took a lot of skin off.I sliced them length-wise and sprinkled plenty of salt over them.
I placed the slices between two large plates.I put a heavy saucepan over the plates, to squeeze the aubergine slices and help rid them of whatever liquid in them makes them slightly bitter.This was quite the tower I created in the kitchen, eh!, what do you think!It didn’t take long for the aubergines to start ‘perspiring’.So much so, that quite a lot of liquid started trickling out.I had left (if I remember correctly) the aubergines to sweat away for one hour – and then threw away the liquid and put the slices of aubergine to rinse in a tub of cold water. I then patted them dry, or as dry as I could.
While all that was going on, in the meantime, I was making the tomato sauce, with fresh tomatoes. It was the height of Summer after all when tomatoes are at their best.
Get hold of the sweetest tomatoes you can lay your hands on, cut them in half, cut an onion in half, sprinkle plenty of salt and add a few basil leaves.
Turn the heat on and cook for about 20 minutes.
Use a food mill to strain the tomatoes.Don’t throw the watery bit away – you can use it in another sauce. Or make a Bloody Mary with it!Our sauce can be cooked down now. Add some olive oil.Cook away, add some salt, taste, add a pinch of sugar if you think it needs it. Set aside.
Time to start frying.
Pour plenty of olive oil into your frying pan.
Dry the slices of aubergine as much as you can – and then get frying.This is the busy bit: the aubergines being fried in batches, then left to drain on a colander. But it gets exciting too! Notice how little oil drips off the fried aubergines? See below.
Time to start assembling. The hard part is over.
Spoon some sauce onto the bottom of a baking dish – not a lot.
Place one layer of aubergines, some mozzarella, plenty of grated parmesan. Regarding the mozzarella: cut it up and put it in a colander/sieve for about one hour before use. That will help to dry it out.
Add some tomato sauce: not too much.Repeat until you finish all the aubergines. Add one last dolloping of the tomato sauce on top, as well as some more olive oil. Bake in an oven at 200°C for about an 40-45 minutes (maybe less? I can’t remember, sorry – but you’ll see when it’s ready).
A parmigiana di melanzane is best eaten at room temperature.
Yes, it does take a lot of time and there is quite a lot of fuss. But, maybe, once a year? Is it worth it? Of course it is.
Below are the links I mentioned earlier on, that are a variation on the theme … These other two recipes were also good, by all means, but this one ranks highest in my opinion. And I suppose I can put that down to the salting of these nightshades, these shady aubergines/eggplants.