As a fitting end to my series about Italy and the great love I have for this country I thought I’d cook what is perhaps my all-time favourite Italian dish.

That’s a big call. I love Italian cuisine so much it’s difficult to pinpoint a favourite. But this dish is definitely up there – Melanzane alla Parmigiana, which translates to Aubergine Parmesan (aubergine is also known as eggplant).

It is basically aubergine slices layered with tomato sauce and grated Parmesan cheese and then baked until bubbling and golden.

I’m reminded of my first trip to Italy with my husband. We were staying in the Tuscan town of San Gimignano. One night we went out for pizza. The menu was in Italian, which didn’t present too much of a problem except that there was a pizza I loved the sound of but couldn’t make out one of the components – “melanzane”. Our waiter was very sweet but could speak barely a word of English and so he called over the restaurant manager who promptly informed me it was aubergine. Well, I was sold. Aubergine is one of my favourite things to eat. Ever since then I have always thought of this fabulous vegetable (although technically it's a fruit) as melanzane.

Last week I posted a recipe for spaghetti with tomato cream sauce and Italian sausage meatballs. I’m going use that same tomato sauce for this dish but change the flavours slightly and leave out the cream at the end.

Although this dish is made in several parts – cooking the tomato sauce, preparing the aubergines, constructing and then baking – they are all very easy and the end product is worth every second spent in the kitchen.

 

Melanzane alla Parmigiana

Serves 4

 

Tomato Sauce

25g unsalted butter

Dash olive oil

1 onion

2 fat cloves garlic

Small handful fresh oregano leaves

1 teaspoon dried oregano

700g bottle tomato passata

250ml water

Salt and pepper

Handful fresh basil leaves, torn into pieces

 

4 aubergines

Olive oil

100g grated Parmesan cheese

100g fresh Mozzarella cheese

 

Preheat the oven to 190°C.

Firstly get a pan on the hob for the aubergines. You can use a griddle pan or a good heavy-based frying pan. You need to get the pan to a high heat.

Now get started with the tomato sauce.

Peel the onion and garlic cloves and roughly chop them. Pop into the bowl of a food processor with the fresh oregano leaves and dried oregano. Blitz until you have a fine oniony pulp.

Heat a large pan and add the butter with a dash of olive oil. Once the butter has melted and is just starting to sizzle add the onion pulp and sauté until soft and the liquid from the onions has evaporated. This should only take a few minutes.

Add the bottle of passata and the water and stir well. Season with salt and a generous grinding of pepper. Bring to a good simmer and leave to simmer for 20-25 minutes. By this time it should have reduced a little and thickened. Taste and check the seasoning. Once you’re happy remove from the heat and stir through the basil leaves.

While the tomato sauce is simmering you can cook the aubergines. To prepare them, trim each end and then cut lengthways into 1cm slices. Brush each side with olive oil. Place them in the pan and cook each side until charred and golden. You’ll need to do this in batches.

After each batch place the slices on a plate lined with kitchen towel and place a piece of kitchen towel between each batch as you transfer to the plate.

Once the aubergines and tomato sauce are ready you can start constructing the dish.

You’ll see below the oven dish I’ve used (approx. 26cm x 26cm) but an oval shaped one would also work well. Use a ladle to pour tomato sauce on the bottom of the dish and spread it out into a thin layer. Place a layer of aubergines on top. Now ladle tomato sauce over the aubergines, once again carefully spreading it out so it covers them. Take your Parmesan and sprinkle a layer of the grated cheese over the tomato sauce. Now another layer of aubergines and tomato sauce and another sprinkling of Parmesan. Repeat this once more so that you have three layers of aubergine and finish with layers of tomato sauce and Parmesan.

Slice the fresh mozzarella and place the slices over the top. Sprinkle over a final scattering of Parmesan cheese.

Place the dish on an oven tray and bake in the oven for 30-40 minutes. It should be bubbling and the mozzarella should be scorched and golden.

Your kitchen will smell incredible as it bakes.

Now how to serve this baby. I know it is often considered a vegetable side but I think this very special dish demands to be the star of the show. So I serve it with a crisp green salad and slices of Ciabatta that I’ve lightly grilled. The crunchy bread is absolutely delicious when you use it to mop up the tomato sauce. It’s a beautiful thing.

Buon Appetito!

Published by Tracey O'Brien