love to cook, I love to eat. This is one of my favourite meals, it is the only dish that makes me believe I could be a vegetarian. It is surprisingly easy to cook.
Melanzane Parmigiana (Aubergine Parmesan), If you are American I am sorry but I refuse to use the ridiculous term ‘eggplant’.
An incredible fusion of tomato, cheese, basil and aubergine. Aubergine is an overlooked vegetable with a distinctive flavour, but here it is tempered into other flavours and the result is an incredible taste that is appreciated by all palates.
Don’t read the rest of this blog yet, go and buy these ingredients. Trust me.
- Aubergines, 1 per person.
- Parmesan, 1 packet (triangle) will do for up to 4 people.
- Mozzarella, 1 packet (ball) will do for 4.
- Basil, 1 pack for four, but get a plant, they are a similar cost and just keep on giving.
- Tomatoes. I cheat and use pots of fresh tomato and basil sauce available in the refrigerated section of all major supermarkets. The original recipe requires tinned, chopped tomatoes and garlic. If you use the already made sauce (and you should) you need one pot for every two people.
- Breadcrumbs. Optional.
So much of the flavour comes from browning the aubergines. The Maillard reaction (worthy of a blog in itself) can be maximised by two key actions. Moisture extraction and slicing. The thinner you slice the aubergines, the more surface area you have to brown, i.e. if you cut an aubergine into 10 slices rather than 5, you will have double the surface area to brown and about twice as much flavour. About half a centimetre is the best thickness.
The Maillard reaction (commonly known as browning), is a chemical reaction between amino acids and reducing sugars, it requires heat, moisture and oxygen. Too much heat results in burnt, blackened food and too much moisture results in boiling or steaming and the reaction never gets of the ground. Obviously don’t burn the aubergines, but equally important is moisture management. When you fry them there should be only one layer of aubergine, they shouldn’t be piled on top of each other. If they are, then as they cook they will release moisture and effectively steam the aubergines around them. As it happens, this is probably why your roast potatoes don’t crisp properly. One layer only and not too tightly packed together. Aubergines contain lots of moisture, to really pull off the browning process you should extract some moisture from them (as you should with your roast potatoes). If you are short on time just pat them with a paper towel, if you have an extra 4 minutes sprinkle the cut aubergines with salt. Traditionally this was always done to aubergines to reduce their bitterness but modern farming techniques have eliminated the unwanted tangy flavour. Within a few minutes the aubergines will begin to ‘weep’, as the salt draws the moisture to the surface.
Place the weeping aubergines on a paper towel with a further one on top. Pressing down will draw lots of moisture out of the aubergines. Fry the aubergines in a large pan, they will absorb lots of oil, so use it sparingly, and if you are using a quality non stick pan you won’t need any oil. You really want to brown them, not quite black, but definitely a dark, dark brown. When you have browned all the cut aubergine lay them on a chopping board or plate to let any oil drain off.
Now, in an ovenproof dish spread a very thin amount of the tomato sauce on the base, you don’t need much, just enough to stop the bottom layer of aubergine burning.
Add to that overlapping aubergine slices.
Basil. Torn, not chopped.
Mozzarella, like basil, never chop it, aways tear it, although for completely different reasons.
Repeat this process until your ingredients are used up, adding a few generous twists of black pepper to each layer and salt if you didn’t make those sliced aubergines cry. Make sure the last layer is a mixture of parmesan, mozzarella and breadcrumbs. You don’t want too many breadcrumbs, they are just providing a little texture, not being a main ingredient.
Bake in the oven for 40 mins at 185 degrees, 170 if it’s a fan oven. You will be rewarded with a rich, savoury, oozing plateful of loveliness. The flavours are deep, the warmth satisfying, and the texture just rolls down your throat. This works as meal in its own right, or is a wonderful accompaniment to roast lamb. If you need it to go further, serve with buttered baguettes and a simple leaf salad with a very basic dressing. You can make this a day before, refrigerate and just chuck it in the oven. Words can’t describe how good this is, it tastes beautiful but is not pretentious or intense. ‘Crowd Pleaser’ is a massive understatement. Has to be tasted to be believed. Garnish with fresh basil.