Melanzane alla parmigiana is one of those deliciously warming dishes that, molten from the oven, can feel more suited to a British winter than a Neapolitan August, despite the distinctly summery ingredients list. Left to cool slightly, or completely, it makes a delicious vegetarian main, starter, side or antipasto; in Italy, it’s even a popular sandwich filling at the beach.
Prep 10 min
Salt 30 min
Cook 1 hr 30 min
Serves 4-6 as a main course or starter
3 garlic cloves
2 tbsp olive oil, plus extra to grease and fry
2 x 400g tins good tomatoes, chopped or whole
150ml red wine
1 pinch sugar
½ tsp dried oregano
200g mozzarella (see step 7)
125g parmesan (see step 7)
1 handful basil leaves (optional)
1 Slice and salt the aubergines
Although most commercial aubergine varieties have had the bitterness bred out of them, it’s still worth salting them if you have time; it’s said to reduce the amount of oil they soak up, and it also seasons the dish from the inside out. Slice the aubergines thinly lengthways (about ½cm thick), sprinkle with salt and leave to drain in a colander for 30 minutes.
2 Start the tomato sauce
Meanwhile, peel and crush the garlic. Heat the olive oil in a medium saucepan over a medium heat, fry the garlic for a minute or so, until fragrant but not browned, then tip in the tomatoes and wine. Bring the pan to a boil, and, if you’ve used whole tinned tomatoes, roughly mash them to a pulp.
3 Cook down the sauce, then puree
Turn down the heat until the sauce is just simmering, then add a pinch of sugar, a little salt and the oregano, and leave to bubble away gently for about 45 minutes, stirring occasionally. Puree the sauce until smooth (this is optional, but will make it go further, so it’s well worth the effort if you have a stick blender or similar).
4 Rinse the salted aubergines
Heat the oven to 180C (160C fan)/350F/gas 4. Rinse the aubergines under cold water and pat at least half dry with a tea towel or kitchen paper while you decide how healthy you’re feeling: if you want to save a few calories by blanching half the aubergines, stop there; if you’re happy to fry the lot, dry the rest and proceed to step 6.
5 Then blanch …
If you’re going down the blanching route, bring a large pan of water to a boil, add the rinsed aubergine slices you didn’t bother to dry, leave to cook for two minutes, then scoop out and dry thoroughly (sorry, you don’t get to skip that bit). Set aside while you fry the rest.
6 … and/or fry
Coat the bottom of a frying pan with oil (I use olive, but most will work) and set over a high heat.
Working in batches, fry the remaining aubergine slices (or all of them, if you didn’t blanch any earlier) in a single layer, and in batches if need be, until golden brown on both sides. Blot the cooked slices on paper towels.
7 Prepare the cheeses
Thinly slice the mozzarella (I think cooking mozzarella is best here, but you can use the fresh stuff, too) and grate the parmesan (other hard cheeses such as grana padano or pecorino can be substituted; some say the name of the dish has nothing to do with the cheese, anyway). Set aside a little parmesan for the top.
8 Layer into a baking dish
Lightly grease a medium baking dish and spread a thin layer of tomato sauce over the base.
Top this with a layer of aubergines, packing them in tightly, followed by a layer of mozzarella, parmesan and seasoning. Repeat the layers until you’ve used up all the aubergine, finishing with a layer of tomato sauce (note: you may not need it all, so save any excess for pasta).
9 Finish off, then bake
Toss the breadcrumbs with a little olive oil and the reserved parmesan, and sprinkle over the top of the dish.
Bake for about 30 minutes, until bubbling and browned on top, then leave to cool slightly, or completely, if you prefer. Before serving, sprinkle with torn fresh basil, if using. (Note: parmigiana reheats very well, but if you do so, cover it with foil or similar to prevent the top burning.)