The Sunday I did my civil duty, wholeheartedly and flaming full of female indignation, and joined the women’s demonstration last month in Piazza del Popolo against the current Italian’s despicable political leadership, I still had dinner to cook when I got home. Two friends were coming round that evening, one whose mother’s funeral had taken place only days before, and the other who would be arriving in a diametrically opposed spirit from a performance of Shakespeare’s “Much Ado about Nothing”. Food for comfort, food for celebration, food for solidarity and, speaking of my husband, food for forbearance for being yet again the only male at the dinner table … What dish would bridge our varying emotions?
Politically correct as my participation in the demonstration had been, it did not detract me from the wise words my mother in law had once imparted: “Dio ci salvi dai virtuosi!” — God spare us from overly virtuous people. Quite. So bearing this in mind, I decided to cook something seasonally incorrect, a dish that is normally feted only at the height of Summer, when aubergines/eggplants are at their ripest and fleshiest and tastiest, i.e. the one and only Parmigiana di Melanzane. Not only seasonally incorrect, but involving frying too – a double whammy. And since we’re being incorrect, let’s go the whole hog and make this a triple whammy by adding eggs to the dish!
Here are the ingredients :
Parmesan cheese (parmigiano reggiano), mozzarella (look at the size of that buffalo mozzarella !), aubergines/eggplants, tomatoes, eggs and some breadcrumbs.
Now the season may be incorrect, but that’s no excuse for being sloppy as regards the making of this dish. Of utmost importance is the ‘sugo’, the tomato sauce. Here is how to make a very basic and utterly simple sugo.
I use a shark’s tooth (one of my kitchen toys!) to remove and discard the pithy bits and pieces — in other words, what we want is only the flesh of the tomato.
Plop the tomatoes into boiling water for a minute or so, enough to loosen the skin so that it will peel easily …
Can you see the skin coming away from the flesh? next :
remove the skin but make sure the tomatoes have cooled before you do this or you will burn your fingers. Also, if you are making a big batch of these tomatoes for sugo, it’s a good idea to have a basin with ice-cold water nearby … you plop the hot tomatoes into this basin and you speed up the cooling so you can get on with it sooner.
Transfer the peeled tomatoes to a saucepan, add a good pinch of salt and a smaller one of sugar, and cook them for about 20 minutes. I added some parsley because, this being February, there wasn’t any basil to be had. Ordinarily one would add basil. As for the scissors … again, ordinarily one would use a mouli or food mill to process the tomatoes before cooking them … but guess what? There were so few tomatoes that the scissors did the trick beautifully. Please note that this is the one and only time where a hand blender would not work. Yes, it would process the tomatoes but its blades would also oxidise the pulp and the result is that you get an ‘orange’ coloured sugo … and we want ours to be red.
PREPARING THE MELANZANE
The metal bowl contains some flour which I will need a little later, when I fry the melanzane. This is something I’ve made up … melanzane tend to absorb a lot of oil when being fried, so sheathing them with a dusting of flour means that less oil is absorbed, hardly any in fact.
Notice that I am peeling the melanzane. This is something I learnt to do only recently and is the result of sneakiness on the part of those who like ‘kitchen secrets’. Although this recipe, the Parmigiana di Melanzane, probably originated in the Naples and Campagna region, the received knowledge is that it is now a quintessential Sicilian dish. And every time I made it and there was a Sicilian friend around to eat it, I always got their compliments followed by a ‘but’. As in, “proprio buono, very good, you see? I have taken two helpings … but … but in Sicily our melanzane taste different”. And who was I to disagree?
So all this harking to the primacy of melanzane did not upset me … until I tried the recipe with melanzane that actually DID come from Sicily. And again I got the litany about the dish being good BUT … And guess what the dirty little secret was?
The skin. The skin of the aubergine. If you remove the skin from the aubergine, it will taste all the sweeter … all the more Sicilian. So, now that I know … I go ahead and peel the melanzane before frying them.
Here are the melanzane, peeled and sliced, and getting a dusting of flour …
Here they are frying in plenty of olive oil (I don’t use my best extra virgin olive oil, but yes … I do use extra virgin olive oil for frying too. You can use another vegetable oil if you prefer). Once cooked, set aside on a plate with plenty of kitchen paper on it to absorb any oil.
ASSEMBLING THE DISH
Put a little sugo on the bottom of the oven dish. Not too much. This is a dish made up of layers and the tomato sauce from the top layers will somehow filter down to the bottom.
Put a layer of the fried melanzane on top of the sugo …
Add some mozzarella which you have torn by hand or cut and which you have squeezed quite hard in order to remove its excess liquid (we don’t want the Parmigiana di melanzane to be soggy).
Sprinkle a nice amount of grated parmesan cheese …
Add another layer of melanzane and mozzarella …
Add more sugo …
and a last sprinkle of parmesan cheese. And now the final touch of this triple whammy :
Beaten eggs !
Pour the beaten eggs over the top and …
last a good sprinkle of bread crumbs. Transfer to a preheated oven (200° C) until ready to eat … in this case it took 25 minutes. A larger dish would probably require 35-40 minutes.
And in order to stave off any guilty feeling that this dish might not be quite what the doctor ordered … go ahead and feel ‘virtuous’ by accompanying it by a nice plate of healthy salad!