If someone ever wanted to try and convince me to go vegetarian, they would need to feed me copious quantities of perfectly executed melanzane parmigiana. It is the best veggie dish in the world. However hard I sometimes try to smuggle bits of bacon into otherwise classically veggie stuff, I wouldn’t dare with melanzane. It doesn’t need it, it will actively reject it and be spoiled for a hint of meat. Even if you thought replacing plain tomato sauce with nice ragù was a stroke of genius. It isn’t. It’s a rubbish idea.
Aubergines, like mushrooms, deliver this near-meat experience with their robust texture, bite and chew. But they need to be properly soft so cooking the slices beforehand is a must. I was recently served a truly hideous aubergine bake with the main hero become villain - stringy and tough. Salting the slices beforehand adds value, if only by making you feel you’re creating an involved, elaborate dish.
You might think ‘parmigiana’ owes its name to the inclusion of Parmesan in the recipe or that it originates from Parma, northern Italy. Being contrary by nature though, and always enjoying polysemous words, I prefer to think it’s derived from the southern palmigiana or parmisciana meaning ‘shutters’ and referring to how the aubergine slices are laid in the dish overlapping each other, like shutters’ slats.
Homemade tomato sauce, good quality mozzarella, a handful of Parmesan and you’re in for a feast.
- For the tomato sauce:
- 500ml tomato passata or 2 tins of good quality tomatoes
- a little olive oil
- 2 cloves of garlic, peeled and finely chopped
- 1 tsp Dijon mustard
- 1 tbsp. tomato puree
- 1 tsp honey
- 1 tsp chilli puree (pepperoncino)
- salt and pepper
- a few sprigs of fresh oregano, leaves stripped and finely chopped or 1 tsp dried
- For the melanzane (to serve 2):
- 2 medium aubergines
- sea salt
- olive oil
- 2 balls buffalo mozzarella, drained and dried in paper towels, or 200g cooking mozzarella
- 5-6 tbsp. freshly grated Parmesan
- a few sprigs of fresh basil
Wash and slice the aubergines into 1cm discs, sprinkle with salt and leave for half an hour in a colander. This step is not essential, aubergines don’t taste bitter these days but I find the process does improve their texture. They might discolour a little but ignore it – after all they will end up buried in the tomato sauce.
Make the tomato sauce: heat up a couple of tablespoons of olive oil in a medium sized pan and add the garlic. Let it only just start to sizzle and pour in the passata. Add all the remaining ingredients, making sure the sauce is seasoned well with salt and pepper, cover with a lid (it will splatter tremendously) and cook on low heat for at least 40 minutes. It should thicken quite a bit. If using tinned tomatoes, mash them halfway through the cooking with a potato ricer to get smooth sauce.
Rinse the aubergine slices and pat them dry with paper towels. Heat up a griddle or a frying pan to medium heat. Brush the aubergine slices with oil on both sides and fry them in batches until soft and charred/coloured. Drain on paper towels.
To build the melanzane, spread a little sauce at the bottom of the dish or dishes (if you’re going to serve it in individual dishes), top with half the aubergine slices in a single layer, torn or sliced mozzarella, torn basil leaves and a third of the Parmesan. Do another layer in the same order ending with more sauce and cheese, if you have any left.
Sprinkle the remaining Parmesan on top and bake for 40 minutes in an oven preheated to 200C/400F/gas 6.
Let the melanzane stand for 10 minutes before serving – it doesn’t taste as good when scalding hot.