The other day I had a craving for the humble aubergine. In a ‘first world problems’ scenario my local supermarket was bereft, so I called and asked my father to grab me a couple since we were due to meet up after work anyhow.I went to meet him at the train station and asked him for my wares, only for him to reach into his pocket and proudly produced what was in fact an avocado (I do love the man, but I sometimes wonder what planet he is on). After gracing him with a bemused look and a patient explanation that this was not quite the ingredient I required, we took an expedition to a different store, and an hour or so later I finally had in my possession two lovely shiny-skinned byzantium beauties.
Known as an ‘aubergine’ throughout the Western world, this delectable fruit (yes, they are seed bearing!) is an edible flowering genus of the not so edible (read: poisonous) nightshade plant . It’s other names include ‘eggplant’, originating from the white bulbous variety which resemble the look and shape of goose eggs, and my particular favourite, ‘mad-apple’, a literal translation of a South Asian derivative. Raw, you would most likely have to be mad to eat it, as it is akin to chomping down on a piece of sponge (grim), but cooked well, the soft buttery texture of it’s flesh is a staple ingredient of many Mediterranean dishes, both vegetarian and meat based.
Rather than being a little predictable and plumping for a Moussaka (Sorry Greek fam!) I have decided to showcase another of my favourite aubergine dishes today, one hailing from South Italy; the classic ‘Melanzane’, with the addition of a couple of not so classic ingredients. A dish comprising of many layers of aubergine, cheese, and tomato sauce, this recipe is traditionally made with parmigiano cheese, but I make mine with buffalo mozzarella and parmesan on the top, as well as including sliced olives and capers in the sauce (c’mon, I couldn’t abandon the Greek entirely!).
TOP TIP: It is important to salt and rinse your aubergine before cooking. As mentioned it tends to act in a sponge-like fashion and will absorb far too much fat, tasting greasy if you don’t, and the salt-rinse also softens the flesh, and removes some of the bitter taste from it’s seeds (caused by the presence of nicotine alkaloids which it has in common with it’s smokier relative, the tobacco plant).
Slice your aubergines, and place in a bowl, before shaking over a good sprinkle of salt. Rub into the flesh, ensuring each slice has some salt and leave for ten minutes. Rinse off well and pat dry with kitchen paper, you are now ready to begin!
Melanzane (by night): Serves 2. (double up on ingredients for a larger portion)
- X2 medium red onions, finely diced
- X6 roughly chopped fresh on the vine tomatoes
- Half a punnet of fresh baby tomatoes cut into halves
- X3 garlic cloves finely diced
- X2 Handfuls of black pitted olives, sliced finely
- X1-2 tablespoons of capers
- X2 medium sized aubergine sliced into round segments, approx half an inch in thickness
- Tomato purée
- X1-2 balls of Buffallo Mozzorella
- Parmesan cheese (finely grated)
- Oil suitable for frying (See previous post extolling the virtues of healthier oils, and heating points)
- Fresh basil to garnish
Put your chopped garlic and onions in a high sided pan with a little oil on a medium heat to soften them, then after 5 minutes add the sliced baby tomatoes. Keep stirring and do not let the onion and tomatoes over-brown. After another 2 minutes, add the vine tomatoes and stir well, giving the tomatoes a bit of a mash along the way. Once hot and you can see the tomato flesh is starting to break down, add a good few squeezes of tomato purée to thicken, then stir. Next add your olives and capers, before switching to a low heat and allowing the sauce to reduce. Stir occasionally as you complete the next steps. Never let the mixture boil and dry out though, if it starts to becomes too dry, turn down the heat and add water one tablespoon at a time. Leave your sauce on the heat to develop as you continue with the recipe.
Next, heat a frying or griddle pan on a high heat. Add your slices of pre-salted and rinsed aubergines, getting as many into the pan without crowding. The aubergine will soak up the oil like a thirsty fellow in a desert, so add the slices first before carefully pouring a little oil in the pan ensuring an even coating on both sides of each slice. It takes a few minutes either side on a medium to high heat, turning regularly. You are looking for the aubergine flesh to go a shiny translucent colour on both sides, so that if you push a fork in, the prongs sink easily. Don’t worry if they start to brown a little,they won’t taste burnt as long as you keep them moist with oil.
You won’t fit all your slices in the pan in one go, so you’ll have to do them in batches, so once cooked, carefully remove the slices with a spatula and place on kitchen towel to absorb the excess oil. Repeat this process until all your slices are done. Give them a good pat with the paper to remove any excess fat.
Flick your oven on to warm up (200 degrees/gas mark 6) whilst you construct your dish.
Taking an oven proof casserole dish, layer your circles of aubergine until the base is covered. Next spoon on a layer of sauce, then tear/slice up your mozzarella and place them in a layer on top of this. Repeat this step with your aubergine, sauce and cheese, then for your final layer finish with aubergine, sauce then grated fresh parmesan on the top instead of mozzarella.
Put on the middle shelf of your oven for 25 mins until the sauce is all bubbling and the cheese on top is nice and crispy.
After the allocated time, serve up whilst the dish is still piping hot so that all the mozarella inside is still melty and stringy, and tear up some fresh basil leaves and sprinkle on top along with some extra parmesan if desired (that’s a yes if you are a cheese fiend like me!).
Leftovers can be kept for up to 2 days, and reheated in the oven, or alternatively frozen and reheated at a later date. It is most important to note, I said it serves two, but what can I say, I totally ate the first one I made to myself with a nice glass (read: bottle) of red, thereby swiftly forgetting to take any photos. #Sorryimnotsorry.
I did however enjoy the second attempt with a friend in a more sophisticated fashion (well, we shared the wine). I made up for it by insisting on shouting out grammatically incorrect Italian phrases in a naff accent whilst we ate it though, much to my companions chagrin. Oh well, when in Rome eh?
Enjoy ragazzi and ragazze!