My Own ‘Cheat’ Parmigiana di Melanzane Recipe

Sometimes I post a blog after a distance of three weeks: today I am posting three recipes all on the same day.   And they are all about aubergines/eggplant.  It must be that I am fired up by aubergines today?

If there is something that makes me almost weep with gastronomic pleasure, it’s a properly make parmigiana di melanzane, a layered aubergine and mozzarella bake in a tomato sauce with parmesan thrown in for good measure and a key ingredient that gives the recipe its name.  I wrote a blog about it last year:

https://frascaticookingthatsamore.wordpress.com/2018/08/31/patience-permitting-a-parmigiana-di-melanzane-most-fitting/

“Patience Permitting, A Parmigiana di Melanzane most Fitting” – the title says a lot, doesn’t it.  Yes, yes indeed.  This is a recipe that takes a LOT of time and patience and one that I most likely make only once or twice a year.

So … I thought that I might work out a ‘cheat’ version – never as good, obviously, but all in all nothing to sneer at.

Take a look.

INGREDIENTS

Aubergine, flour, oil for frying (this time I used olive oil but you can also use groundnut oil which has a good smoke point), mozzarella, tomato sauce, grated parmesan cheese, basil

1Start by slicing the aubergine into ‘chips’ and then flouring them.  The reason they need to be floured before frying is that they will otherwise absorb an awful lot of oil.  The flour acts like a sheath.  Shake the excess flour off the chips before frying them.

2Fry them until they go crisp.   Lay them on kitchen paper that will absorb any excess oiliness.

3Wait for them to cool down a little and then place them in a roasting pan – I happened to use this pyrex dish.  Add chunks of mozzarella. Sprinkle some salt.

4Add a layer of tomato sauce, scatter some basil leaves, and sprinkle some parmesan.

5Repeat the same procedure, with another layer.

6Bake until cooked.  Add more fresh mozzarella and basil leaves just before serving.

Not quite as lip-licking delicious compared with a ‘proper’ parmigiana di melanzane but it’ll do when time is of the essence.

My Mother’s Aubergine/Eggplant Sandwich

Since I wrote about my mother-in-law’s recipe with aubergines, I think it might be a good idea to also include one of my own mother’s aubergine recipes.  This is not about rivalry between mothers-in-law but, rather, about variety being the spice of life.

INGREDIENTS

Aubergine/eggplant, flour, egg, oil for frying (groundnut oil), mozzarella, anchovy

Start by turning the oven on.  Isn’t it weird how so many summer dishes actually entail having to deal with a hot oven? Sigh.

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Flour on the left, beaten eggs on the right.  You might even add a little water to the beaten egg.  I had to water down my egg wash once because I didn’t have enough eggs to hand and everything worked out just fine.

2Slice the aubergine into rounds.

3Flour them on both sides and then dip them in the egg wash.

4Fry them on both sides.

5Pat the top of the fried aubergine with some kitchen paper to absorb any excess oiliness. Then sprinkle a little bit of salt.  Only a little.

6The idea is to make a sandwich with the slices of fried aubergine.  Place some mozzarella and a fillet of anchovy (the kind that is packed in oil) on one slice, add some basil and then bring the two halves together.

7Bake in the oven (200°C I would say) until they are done – about half an hour?

They don’t look like much but don’t be fooled.  Not once, not once I repeat, have I ever had any leftovers when it comes to this recipe !

Aubergine/Eggplant Baked ‘Boats’

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I would rank this among the ‘epitome section’ of home-made dishes.  And by that, I mean that I would not expect to see it offered on any restaurant menu.  A quiet pride at their core made up of unsophisticated and bold statement-making flavour(s), the ‘barchette di melanzane’, i.e. “little aubergine boats”, are the kind of summer dish that only a Mamma would make for her family.  It does take patience, for one thing.  My own mamma never made these but my mother-in-law did.

We were visiting my husbands’ parents who spend their summers in a small town in the Marche, called Monterubbiano.  Very sadly, my mother-in-law is now incapable of cooking anything because she has Alzheimers and her version of reality has already gone beyond the slippery edge of mixed-up reasoning.  She still recognizes us and that is a boon and when she sees me preparing for a meal asks me whether I could do with some help.  I make her peel garlic or potatoes, or slice tomatoes – that sort of thing.  Funny how ‘manually’ speaking she is still capable of some things.  Conversation, however, can veer off into pockets of the absurd that might have inspired Beckett, and repetition is the least of it.   All ill health is tragic but some diseases are more tragic than others.

This recipe, the aubergine boats, used to be one of her summer specialities, that my husband remembers with the fondness of a grateful son.  Now she can’t even remember making them.  I had never made them before and I expect there are other versions out there that are easier or better to make but here we go anyway.

INGREDIENTS

Aubergines/egg plants, minced meat, onion, garlic, parsely, tomato sauce, extra virgin olive oil, freshly grated parmesan cheese

Silly things first: turn the oven on, put a pot of water to boil, arm yourself with some patience – depending on which time of day make yourself some coffee or tea or else pour yourself a glass of wine.

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Begin my cooking the minced meat with a little olive oil.

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While it’s cooking, cut the two aubergines in half and use a sharp knife to diagonally cut the inside of the half into diamond-like shapes – as in the photo above.  Be careful not to reach the bottom of the aubergine otherwise you’ll cut that too.

4Spoon out the cut chunks of aubergine.  This is not quite as easy as it looks by the way, be prepared.

5Brown an onion with some olive oil.

67Three things going on here at the same time: (1) the meat is cooking, (2) the onions are browning and (3) the aubergine halves are being dunked in boiling salted water for only a minute or so, to soften them.

8Add some parsely to the onions.

10Then add the chunks of aubergine.

11Add the meat and some tomato sauce (passata di pomodoro).

912I decided it needed some garlic too – and extra parsely.  Make sure to taste and season accordingly (salt and pepper, maybe a little bit more olive oil even).

All this didn’t take very long and is quite an ‘intuitive’ approach to cooking minced meat in a tomato sauce – think lasagna for instance.

I had to wait for the aubergine halves to cool down – and they were very ‘floppy’.  It was at this point that I asked my mother-in-law to help me – and she did.  By spooning the sauce into the aubergine ‘boats’.

13Here she is.  As you can see, we sprinkled some parmesan over the boats before placing them in the previously heated oven.

14Bake for about 30-40  minutes at a temperature of 200°C.

15They can be eaten at room temperature – in fact, even better.  Here they are served the following day.

Polpette di Melanzane al Cumino -Aubergine Patties with Cumin

These patties, or ‘polpette’ as they are called in Italian are quite simple to make and create a bit of interest taste-wise on account of ingredients that ‘pop’:  cumin, spring onion and fresh mint.  They’re dead easy to  make and are crowd pleasers because you can eat them as a finger food or serve them as a part of a main course.  I made them for the first time just over a year ago, on a whim, and have kept making them since, tweaking them this way and that.  There is no real recipe, if you see what I mean.  Just a bunch of ingredients thrown together.  There are countless recipes for aubergine/eggplant patties in Southern Italy and this one would not differ too much save for one ingredient: cumin.   I’ve never come across an Italian recipe calling for cumin.

Try them, you might like them.

Ingredients

Aubergines/eggplant, plastic bread, spring onion or ordinary onion, parsely if you don’t have mint, tomato paste, cumin, sweet paprika, salt, 1 egg, breadcrumbs, 1 tablespoon grated parmigiano

IMG_3131This is one aubergine, sliced, and cooked in the oven until it dried out a little.  About half an hour.  Wait for the slices to cool before proceeding.

IMG_3125Some slices of bread (this is what I call plastic bread).

IMG_3126Break up the bread.

IMG_3127Add the parsely.  And whizz the parsely too.

IMG_3128Add some cumin: a couple of teaspoons say …

IMG_3129Add 1 peeled onion, cut into quarters.  Spring onions are better, but I didn’t have any that day.

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This is a tube of tomato paste, tomato concentrate.  My fridge is never without one because this tomato can be added to so many recipes.  Just a squidge here and there.

IMG_3130Okay so here is a view from the top: I processed the bread and then the parsely.  After I added an onion, some cumin, a squidge of the tomato paste, a good pinch of salt and, last, the bright orange you see on the right, some sweet paprika.

IMG_3131Remember these?  Time to add them.

IMG_3133IMG_3134IMG_3135The end result was somewhat sticky.

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I transferred this mix to a bowl, and added Italian breadcrumbs, which are very dry, a tablespoon of freshly grated parmigiano, and 1 egg.   I used a spoon to bring the mix together, adding more and more breadcrumbs until I reached the consistency I was after.

A little on the laborious side but not rocket science, it was now time to shape the mix into patties .  I prevailed upon my husband to do this while he was watching some news on the TV.   If he can do this, anyone can.    (Not that I was idly lounging about, I hasten to add, I was otherwise occupied in the kitchen and getting our dinner ready.  The patties were just an ‘extra’.)

I left the patties in the fridge overnight.  I fried them in ordinary groundnut oil, the next day, and served them with some tahini sauce.

I had been asked over to a potluck dinner at a friend’s house and all was well.

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That’s some tahini sauce in the middle.

2I suppose you could also serve them with ketchup, why not?  A squeeze of lemon?  Leave the egg and cheese out, and these can be served as a vegan dish too.

To me … these polpette speak of summer and warmth and longer days.

How to Hack a Caponata di Melanzane: Sweet and Sour Aubergine Recipe

I think the best way to hack a caponata is to get someone else to make one for you but he or she has to be trustworthy.  A caponata made without love can be a very disappointing affair.  I am not a goody goody, by the way, and rely on tricks and tips and short-cuts to make life run more smoothly, but when it comes to certain dishes there can be no cutting of corners.

I started out well enough, in an Eiffel Tower kind of way.

IMG_9474I cut up some aubergines/eggplant into chunks, sprinkled salt over them and placed a plate and weight over them to help their inner liquid demon ooze out more readily. By the way, the Le Creuset-type cast iron saucepan you see?  Slightly battered.  So sad, I dropped it the other day and was on the brink of throwing it away but just couldn’t find the heart to do so because it had belonged to my Swedish grandmother and so it is easily close to being 100 years old.  It can continue to be used in other ways.

IMG_9476IMG_9477I had left the aubergines to sweat for at least an hour and this is how much ‘stuff’ they released.

 

Time to rince the aubergine chunks thoroughly, to rid them of the salt.

IMG_9480Time to squeeze the water out of them.  This can be a bit of a pallaver so another good hack is to find an obliging husband to do this manly job for you.

Now the whole point of salting the aubergines is to make frying them a happy affair: they will not absorb too much oil and their texture will be more pleasing.  So, give yourself brownie points for not skipping this important step.

Off I went out then and did whatever it was I went out to do BUT I took an awful long time doing it.  Hence,  when I came home, it was late and supper had to be made and I was tired and was in no mood for frying these aubergines. Which is what is required of a true, proper Caponata di Melanzane. After a bit of head scratching and huffing and puffing and chiding myself for wanting to attempt a caponata on a busy day, I decided to go maverick.  Be a caponata iconoclast! I told myself.

IMG_9481I lay the chunks on a pyrex dish and dribbled some nice olive oil and sprinkled a little bit of  salt and … yes, you guessed it.  I put them in the oven to cook.  (Where’s that icon for the palms of both hands resting on both cheeks in a show of amazement?).  UNHEARD OF!

IMG_9484They cooked in the oven at 180°C for about 40 minutes.

IMG_9504When they cooled down, I covered them in plastic wrap and put them in the fridge.  I was exhausted and went to bed.

THE NEXT DAY

img_9584.jpgI placed 4 tablespoons of sugar in a small pan and poured white wine vinegar to cover it by more than 1 inch.  Cook the vinegar until the sugar melts and set aside.

img_9581.jpgChop up some onions and cook over a low heat.  Add a bit of salt as well as sugar.IMG_9585When the onions have gone golden ..

IMG_9586Add some very good-quality Italian plum tomatoes.  A caponata is best made with sweet fresh tomatoes but I didn’t have any on me.  I used a pair of scissors to chop ’em directly in the saucepan.  This is the ‘salsa’ that we are preparing, and it should cook for about 15-20 minutes.

IMG_9587Celery.  Celery is an integral part.  Pare the celery stalks, cut them up and blanch them in some salted boiling water. Drain and set aside.

img_9588.jpgAlso – but I don’t have any photo – rinse some salt dried capers over and over again, and have them at the ready.

IT ALL COMES TOGETHER

Add the celery and cook for a couple of minutes.

IMG_9590IMG_9591The sauce was getting a little thick and now was the right time to pour in the sweetened vinegar.  Sorry, no photo of me pouring it in.

IMG_9592Then in go the baked aubergines.

IMG_9593Lots of fresh basil.  Combine all the ingredients.  Job done, the heat can be turned off.

IMG_9594One last thing.  Toast some pine kernels.

img_9595.jpgOnce it had all cooled down, I put the caponata in a glass container in the fridge.  So the great thing about this recipe is that it can be prepared in advance.

IMG_9652We were getting ready for an outdoor grill with family, at my in-laws’ house in the Marche and the caponata took pride of place where the vegetable side dishes were concernerd.

IMG_9653I stuck some more fresh basil in the middle.

SSSI9783And everyone said the caponata tasted lovely.

I, being a fusspot, continue to prefer the fried version.  But it’s good to know that the next best thing is the oven approach.

I don’t know whether you are acquainted with Frank Fariello? If not, you should definitely check out his super blog “Memorie di Angelina”.  Bless him, he wrote the following comment on a recent post I had written:

“Lighter it may be but never as good.” Amen, I say, to that. I’ve tried various light version of parmigiana and they’re invariably disappointing. Nothing like the original recipe, heavy as it may be. I remember my grandmother dipped her eggplant slices in flour and egg as well. Made the dish even heartier but boy was it heavenly!

 

We’re on the same page Frank and I … I am a fried-food-fanatic! But, if you don’t like the idea of frying, this oven cooked aubergine caponata will do very well indeed, I promise.

Patience Permitting, a Parmigiana di Melanzane Most Fitting

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.

IMG_0598As we tucked into the dish, we commented appreciatingly about it and drew similarities to the classic Parmigiana di Melanzane.

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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.

1This is how I prepped the aubergines/eggplants – I took a lot of skin off.34I sliced them length-wise and sprinkled plenty of salt over them.

5I placed the slices between two large plates.7I 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.9This was quite the tower I created in the kitchen, eh!, what do you think!10It didn’t take long for the aubergines to start ‘perspiring’.11So much so, that quite a lot of liquid started trickling out.121314I 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.

1516Get 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.

17Turn the heat on and cook for about 20 minutes.

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19Use a food mill to strain the tomatoes.19aDon’t throw the watery bit away – you can use it in another sauce. Or make a Bloody Mary with it!20Our sauce can be cooked down now.  Add some olive oil.21Cook away, add some salt, taste, add a pinch of sugar if you think it needs it.  Set aside.

Time to start frying.

22Pour plenty of olive oil into your frying pan.

23.jpg24.jpgDry the slices of aubergine as much as you can – and then get frying.252627This 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.

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Time to start assembling.  The hard part is over.

28.jpgSpoon some sauce onto the bottom of a baking dish – not a lot.

29

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.30

31Add some tomato sauce: not too much.32Repeat 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).

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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.

(1)  https://myhomefoodthatsamore.wordpress.com/2011/08/27/window-slats-and-the-naming-of-a-dish-la-parmigiana-di-melanzane/

(2) https://myhomefoodthatsamore.wordpress.com/2011/03/01/seasonally-incorrect/