This classic northern Italian dish (see comments below about origin) has long been one of my very favourite things. Its rich combination of aubergine, tomato sauce, Parmesan and mozzarella just oozes with all that’s good about Italian food: the best ingredients cooked quite simply and absolutely gorgeous to eat. Strangely, I’ve not cooked it much but often choose it when eating in an Italian restaurant. It usually comes as a starter or primo – an alternative to pasta or risotto – but can be served as a side dish with simply cooked meat or fish. It’s so rich, however, I think it’s best served on its own and I like it as a light lunch or supper dish with a nice crisp green salad.
I always remember a trip to Italy in 2002 with my daughter when I eat this dish. Not because of a great version I had there, but because of not having it there! Let me explain. We were on a wonderful 3-week trip travelling round Sicily and Italy, south of Rome. We headed back to Rome for the end of the holiday via the Abruzzo National Park – about a 2-hour drive due east of Rome.
The Abruzzo is a beautiful part of Italy. We were there in October and there was a mass of lovely autumn colours everywhere: oranges, bronze, reds, yellows. We stayed in a small village called Scanno in a chalet type hotel where we had half board – breakfast and an evening meal. It was a quiet time of year and there were few other people in the hotel. The food was very simple but good. However, one evening there was ‘Parmigiana’ on the menu and I assumed – though of course I should have checked – that this was Melanzane alla Parmigiana. You can imagine my surprise when a plate bearing just one huge, rock-like lump of Parmesan cheese was put before me! All on its own with no accompaniment. My daughter and I did laugh and fortunately she’d ordered a pasta dish which she was happy to share so somehow we sorted it out and both ate something. The elderly man running the hotel and the young chef were very friendly but spoke no English and we decided not to try to get into any discussion about what we’d expected.
Before cooking tonight I got out some books: Angela Hartnett, Marcella Hazan and Jamie Oliver. There were slight variations: whether the aubergine was the bottom layer or the tomato sauce; Jamie didn’t add mozzarella to the layers, except as an optional topping, but Angela and Marcella did (and so did I). Jamie and Marcella added dried oregano to the tomato sauce and as I had some home-dried from oregano grown in my garden last summer, so that went in.
First of all make the tomato sauce: finely chop a small onion, crush a small clove of garlic and soften in some olive oil in a pan. When they begin to turn translucent add a small tin of chopped tomatoes. I was pleased to find some small – half the usual size – tins, 160g, in Sainsbury’s recently, which is great for single cooking! Season with salt and pepper and add a little dried oregano. Simmer gently for about 15 minutes then blend into a smooth sauce with a hand blender.
Now prepare the aubergine: slice 1 large aubergine lengthways into 6 slices then sprinkle with salt and leave for about 10 minutes. Rub off the salt with kitchen towel and brush generously with olive oil. Put the aubergine slices on a hot griddle and cook until softened through and lightly golden. Aubergines soak up a lot of oil so press down with a slice or wooden spoon as they cook to encourage the oil to soak all the way through, as you want them nice and soft but not overcooked. Transfer to some kitchen towel laid out on the work top to cool.
Slice 1 ball of buffalo mozzarella into 8 slices. Grate some Parmesan. Put 2 slices of aubergine in the bottom of an ovenproof dish. Spoon on half the tomato sauce and spread over. Dot over 4 pieces of mozzarella and sprinkle over some grated Parmesan. Add 4 basil leaves. Now put on 2 more slices of aubergine and repeat. Put a final top layer of aubergine on and add a good amount of grated Parmesan and dot with butter. Put in a 190C/170 Fan oven for about half an hour or until nicely browned.
It’s best to leave it to cool a little before eating as it retains the heat and can be burningly hot. Prepare a nice crisp salad: mine had peppery rocket, bitter radicchio, spinach and the fresh aniseed taste of sliced fennel.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have a glass of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo to hand to finish my Abruzzo story – though while Nicola and I were there it was always served in restaurants: a bottle put on the table with no choice. But who needs choice when the local wine is so good. Melanzane alla Parmigiana is such a comforting dish: soft, rich, warm and sublimely delicious. And I was really quite pleased to have successfully made it as a single portion as I’d always thought it something one had to do in larger quantities. Though actually, some leftovers would have been nice: it’s good cold too!