I have been thinking about how to introduce this sheer poetry of a dish: parmigiana di melanzane. Hands shaking as I type… I seem not to be able to find the words. Well, you’ll soon find out this didn’t stop me from writing hundreds of words anyway, but still, you get the idea of how much I care about this dish.
There is a historical debate about whether parmigiana di melanzane is Sicilian or Neapolitan, but I frankly do not really mind, as wherever it may be from, it is one of those meals that makes me lose any drop of common sense I have left. I could eat parmigiana di melanzane every day of the summer – and I’m talking about a Neapolitan summer, which lasts for more than four months!
That said (and only in case anyone else is interested, of course), in 1839 there was the first mention of the parmigiana di melanzane recipe as we know it today. Ippolito Cavalcanti, in Cucina Casereccia in Dialetto Napoletano, writes:
… e le farai friggere; e poi le disporrai in una teglia a strato a strato con il formaggio, basilico e brodo di stufato o con salsa di pomodoro; e coperte le farai stufare.
(…referring to the aubergines: “… I would fry them; then I would place them in a baking dish layer after layer covered with cheese, basil and tomato sauce; this way I would cook them in the oven.”)
I love this extract because the recipe mentions the very same ingredients that my grannies used to make parmigiana: aubergines, parmesan, tomato sauce and basil. No other spices are included; no mozzarella, no nothing. And it is the recipe that my granny shared with my mum that I am going to share today with you.
The principle is that the star of the dish is the aubergines. If you cover it in a large amount of tomato sauce and mozzarella, the aubergines will drown, and it will no longer be about them but about the tomato sauce with mozzarella. Not fair, is it?:-P
Mind you, there are many versions out there. Some will coat the aubergines in flour and egg before frying (this version is used by many Neapolitans and I love it equally). But some other people (never Italians!) will roast the aubergines rather than frying them, will use mozzarella and add large quantities of tomato sauce and many spices.
If you ask me… You know what. Just don’t ask. 🙂 I am sure you can guess how I feel about these variations.
In short (famous last words), parmigiana di melanzane is everything you could ask for from a meal: simple and extremely tasty and delicious. That’s my type of food. The wonderful taste of deep-fried aubergines, basil-flavoured passata and parmesan. The End.
Or rather the beginning of a love story that started many many years ago. Every summer as far back as I can remember I would see my mum, my granny Cristina and my aunts all gathered around a big table chopping KILOS and KILOS of aubergines they had just picked from the campagna.
I remember mountains of melanzane stacked up on the table. And although I was not allowed to help cut them or fry them, I had the serious task, together with my older cousin Cristina, of draining them to purge them of their bitter water and to dry them very well. And, believe it or not, although it might sound a bit boring, I loved being part of such an important process: making parmigiana di melanzane!
Every summer when we go back to Naples, I know that there will be parmigiana every day. I know, it might be a bit much, but it is the only season when good aubergines are available, and trust me, you have to make the most of that.
Last year we all got together at my aunt Carla’s farm and it was amazing to be able to do some aubergine picking. While I was selecting them, I was dreaming in my mind of all the beautiful things I could cook with them… er, ask my mum to cook. But in the end, parmigiana is always the winning dream. You hear the sound of the word, and you just feel over the moon. It just brings so much joy. It may sound a bit over the top, but you know what love is like, don’t you? Love is crazy, love is blind!
Last week some very good friends came over for a Sunday lunch (three of the four were Italians) and I thought that I would spoil them a little bit with the first parmigiana of the season (a bit early but I could not wait any longer!).
We welcomed them with some canapés, which – guess what – included aubergines! Yes, involtini di melanzane… just a teaser to the third course.
And as always people ended up licking their moustaches (leccarsi i baffi)!
And dulcis in fundo… because there is only one thing I love more than parmigiana di melanzane….
If you are worried about frying aubergines, do not worry. Be inspired by my friend Becca, who had always made parmigiana di melanzane with grilled aubergines, but guess what? I converted her! Look at her smile… I have faith in you: you can deep fry for once! 😛 And although it is a bit of a labour of love, it is really worth it.
I love it when people get properly stuck in. And it always ends up with big smiles and cheers all around.
So what are the secrets to a good parmigiana di melanzane? Patience, time and love. AND on top of that:
- purged and very well dried aubergines (to avoid absorbing too much oil), all cut pretty much to the same depth (to guarantee even cooking)
- allowing the aubergines to expel excess oil after you fry them
- the right amount of tomato sauce (it is about the aubergines!)
- plenty of parmesan and basil
Are YOU ready for this?
To cook the aubergines
- 1.2kg of aubergines (approximately 4 aubergines) to be sliced lengthways, 5mm deep
- Water and salt for purging the aubergines
- 500ml extra-virgin olive oil, or peanut oil for a lighter texture and flavour more suitable for deep frying
For the tomato sauce
- 1 bottle of passata, 750g
- Half a small onion, chopped finely
- 2 tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil
- Salt, as required, depending on your taste
- 2 or 3 basil leaves
- Big bunch of basil leaves
- About 70g parmesan
- Rectangular baking dish: 23x15cm
We need to prep the aubergines. Wash them, dry and remove the stalks.
Slice them lengthways at 5mm depth. Many people use a meat slicer to get them the same depth, which plays an important part in making a great parmigiana. I don’t have one but I make do. Patience, attention, care and love. Even if they’re not all identical in size, they are very similar and that is good enough!
We need to rid the aubergines of their natural bitter taste. There are two ways to do that.
First method. Fill up a bowl with water, add a tablespoon of salt. Stir well. Place the aubergines in the bowl and soak for 30 minutes-1 hour.
Dry them well with clean tea towels or kitchen paper. Try to take as much water out as possible as this will prevent them from absorbing too much oil when deep-fried.
The alternative way is to just place the slices in a colander supported by a plate underneath, cover them with some salt, put some pressure on them (with a heavy saucepan or similar) and leave them to expel their water for an hour. When ready, rinse them under tap water and dry them very well using kitchen paper or tea towels.
Prepare the tomato sauce
In a medium-sized saucepan, add 2 tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil and the finely chopped onion. On low heat, sauté the onion, until it is a pale golden colour.
Add the passata, an abundant pinch of salt (you will need to taste it – what is sweet for someone can be quite salty for someone else!) and a bunch of basil leaves.
Let simmer with the lid on for 30 minutes. Check every now and then and stir.
Towards the end, increase the heat until the sauce becomes thicker and you can no longer see any watery content on the surface. Taste and season with extra salt if required. And no, no other spices are needed.
Cooking the aubergines (better if fried a day before)
While the tomato sauce is cooking, you can fry the aubergines. Ideally you would do this step the day before so you can leave them in a sieve to expel the excess oil.
Prepare a large plate lined with kitchen paper on the side.
In a large frying pan pour the oil and on medium heat cook until hot. Before adding the aubergines, do a test. Drop in a little piece of aubergine and if it reaches the surface immediately surrounded by plenty of bubbles, the oil is ready.
Add no more than 4 or 5 slices at a time. They need to have enough space to be cooked comfortably. Turn them often so they cook evenly and do not burn. When they are golden, but not too dark, take each of them out with two forks, shake the extra oil off and place on the plate. Carry on until all aubergines are fried. This process is a bit time-consuming, but it really is worth the effort and time.
Set aside and cover with extra kitchen paper. Apply some gentle pressure to absorb as much oil as possible. The best thing to do is to place the aubergines in a large sieve, with a deep bowl underneath, for a few hours (if you have time) to let more oil drain.
Now that the aubergines and tomato sauce are ready, preheat the oven to 200°C (180°C fan).
Line the baking dish with a layer of tomato sauce. Add the slices of aubergines one next to each other, slightly overlapping to cover the whole surface. Cover with a thin layer of tomato sauce. Sprinkle the surface evenly with grated parmesan. Add a few basil leave here and there.
Start with the second layer of aubergines and repeat the same operation as above.
The last layer will be covered with tomato sauce, basil and parmesan.
Place in the oven for about 20 minutes or until the parmesan is properly melted and the surface is slightly bubbling and the top is a bit brown.
Take out of the oven, let rest for a couple of hours. This piece of pure and crazy goodness is best served when warm, or even at room temperature.
If for whatever crazy reason there is some left over, grab it, store in the fridge, hide it well and have it between two slices of sourdough bread the next day. And that, there, is heaven.