Parmigiana di Melanzane

autumn forageThe Changing Seasons…The tinge of Autumn is in the air and in the hedgerows and I’ve decided not to fight it this year.

To avoid disappointment I think it is easier to think of August as the month of change. For over the last few years it has been the case that we end up inappropriately dressed and bitterly complaining about British Summertime. If however you take every warm and sunny day as a unassumed blessing, you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

For early Autumn is a wonderful time with plump berries, apples, nuts, mushrooms and plenty more to forage. Not to mention an increase in warming soul foods, twinkling lights, the whiff of wood smoke and the splashed palette of colour in the trees.

So it is all about expectation management really and making the most of those surprise hot spells in March and April that usually pass us by with a grumble relating to global warming and a reluctance to get our winter arms and legs out.

To help embrace the changing seasons I’ve included a recipe for the best comfort food known to man; Parmigiana di Melanzane. Feedback from the readers of my new book suggests this is the first recipe they are drawn to and for good reason. If you have not got your mitts on the book already, you can download your own copy here. Get it for your iPad, prop it up precariously in the kitchen and get going, being careful not to cover it in bubbling hot tomato sauce.

Tales from my happy place

Parmigiana di Melanzane

Pre Ramble

I think this is my favourite dish of all time. I love building it, serving it and eating it. My experience of parmigiana di melanzane has come a long way since my first taste at Pizza Express many years ago. The real love affair began in Rome atop a gingham-clad wine-wobbly table resting on an uneven cobble tucked away at Osteria da Mario in Piazza delle Coppelle.

One of the magic things about working in the green mellow folds of the Sabine Hills was that the centre of Rome was only one hour away by train. This epic city sat just over the brow to the west with all its history and I could pop there for the day! I’m not a fearless traveller but I felt inspirited exploring endless churches, cafes and piazzas enveloped by the infinite nooks and crannies on my own. Since then I’ve rallied family and friends from Aventine to Palatine, from Basilica to Piazza, stopping at cafes, osterias and pizzerias along the way. I feel Rome in my tummy and impressing my love of the city is like charcoal rubbings, picking up every miniscule elevation and depression to produce an image that can only be understood once you’ve rubbed away enough.

I was lucky enough to have a sizeable veg patch a few minutes trot from my kitchen at In Sabina yoga retreat. It was October and I had a glut of multi-coloured aubergines to use up. Aubergines really do need some attention and love to bring out their best side. A semi-cooked chunk of rubbery sinew flung carelessly in to a tagine just doesn’t cut the mustard. However a tender slice of melting flesh oozing oil, enveloped by a soft purple hue does the mighty veg justice. This does require quite a lot of oil, but if you are going to cook it you might as well do it properly.

 

Ingredients            

 For the sauce             

 Several glugs of olive oil/rapeseed oil mix

2 tins of chopped tomatoes

2 garlic cloves, chunky chopped

½ red onion, roughly chopped

3 sundried tomatoes and a bit of their oil

Balsamic vinegar to taste

Demerara sugar to taste

Salt and pepper to taste

The Rest         

2 aubergines, thinly sliced

250g org. mozzarella, drained and patted dry

80g Pecorino, finely grated

Some sprigs of fresh thyme

What to do

 Heat the oven to 220’C (425’F or Gas 7) and use a dish about 8” square.

Make your naughty and rich sauce. Fry off garlic and onions in the oil until a goodly aroma is released then pop in your chopped toms and sundried tomatoes.

Reduce on a low heat for 30 minutes stirring occasionally. Season at the end of cooking with balsamic vinegar, sugar, salt and pepper to suit your taste. Whizz until smooth so you achieve a crazy rich passata style sauce that will light up the creamy mozzarella and the velvety aubergine.

Heat oil in the frying pan. Fry aubergine on both sides until golden and shiny. Put them on to some kitchen roll to soak up excess oil.

Layer up the dish starting with aubergine on the bottom. Add your tomato sauce next and then mozzarella. Repeat in this order, finishing with a layer of aubergine and sprinkled with the pecorino and some fresh thyme.

Bake for approx.. 20 minutes on the top shelf until bubbling golden. Whip it out and leave it to sit. If you can hold off for 30 minutes, you have incredible will power. Serve with a rocket salad. Perfect…

Extra Ideas…

I keep a mix of half olive oil and half rapeseed oil by my hob for general cooking purposes. That way you get the flavour from the olive but the reduced burning temperature of the rapeseed. Another tip I learnt from my Romanian friend in my Italian kitchen.