Rome recipe: Parmigiana di Melanzane

Aubergine Parmigiana is a celebration of the signature ingredients of southern Italian cuisine.

Although its true origin continues to be contested between Sicily and Campania, parmigiana di melanzane (or melanzane alla parmigiana) is nevertheless a celebration of the signature ingredients of southern Italy.

Slices of plump, ripe aubergine (eggplant) are layered together with an intense tomato sauce, fragrant fresh basil and milky mozzarella before being baked in the oven to create a harmonious taste of summer.

There are many variations to the preparation of the dish. The aubergine will usually be fried, sometimes with just a light coating of flour, or maybe also dredged in egg and breadcrumbs, but some prefer a lighter version made with grilled aubergine which eliminates some of the oil content.

The cheeses used can also vary though most recipes agree on a combination of mozzarella and grated parmesan or grana.

It is best to use inky-purple aubergines which are firm and shiny. Even though it increases the preparation time, it is wise to salt and drain the slices before frying to eliminate any bitterness.

This also reduces the water content which can make them soggy and insipid. It is also important to give your tomato sauce ample time to simmer and reduce in order to create the proper base from which the other elements can sing.

From start to finish this dish is a labour of love, especially batch-frying in the hot summer temperatures, but the result is deliciously satisfying and gets even better when there are leftovers to devour the next day.

Parmigiana di Melanzane

(Serves 6)
5 medium aubergines
2 x 700ml jars of tomato passata
1 onion, finely chopped
1 clove garlic
5 x 125g balls of mozzarella
100g grated parmesan or grana
1 bunch of fresh basil leaves
Salt
Pepper
Flour, for dusting
Extra virgin olive oil
1lt peanut or sunflower oil, for frying

Wash and trim the aubergines. Cut lengthways into slices of about ½ centimetre in width. Layer in a colander, sprinkling with salt in between the layers. Place over a bowl and put a heavy plate on top to push the aubergine down. Leave to drain for at least 30 minutes.

Once drained, discard the bitter juices then rinse the slices and dry well with kitchen paper or a clean cloth.

In a wide pan, heat the oil until boiling (you can test with a wooden toothpick or a small piece of aubergine, if small bubbles gather the oil is ready). Sprinkle some flour on a plate then one-by-one take each slice of aubergine, coat it in flour on both sides and carefully lower it into the oil. Cook for around 2-3 minutes, turning regularly until it begins to turn golden, then remove and place onto kitchen paper to drain off the excess oil. Continue to fry the slices in batches, try not to overcrowd the pan.

To prepare the tomato sauce, heat a generous glug of olive oil in a saucepan, finely chop one onion and add to the pan along with one whole, peeled, garlic clove. Gently fry for a few minutes until the onion is soft and translucent. Remove the garlic and add two jars of tomato passata. Season well with salt and pepper, bring to the boil then turn down to a gentle simmer, cover and cook for 30-40 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the sauce has reduced by half.

Chop the mozzarella into 1-2cm cubes, place in a colander and use your hands to squeeze out the excess water. Leave to drain for 10 minutes.

When everything is ready to be assembled, take a large baking dish and spread a little tomato sauce across the base. Layer some slices of aubergine then spoon over more sauce, add some fresh basil leaves, cubes of mozzarella and a good sprinkle of parmesan.

Continue with layering in the same order of aubergine, sauce, basil, mozzarella, parmesan until the top layer of aubergine. Spread over a little sauce along with the remaining mozzarella and plenty of parmesan to finish.

Heat the oven to 180°C and bake your parmigiana for approximately 30 minutes until the top is crispy and the sauce is bubbling.

Recipe by Kate Zagorski

Kate Zagorski has lived in Italy since 2000. Married to a food-obsessed Roman chef, she leads food tours and also works as a freelance food and travel writer.