It’s early august so we’re right in the middle of Aubergine season and the farmer’s markets are full of them. They’re originally from India where they were grown 5000 years ago and made their way into Europe via Italy around the 13th century as a result of trade with the arabs.
I love the Italian name for them, ‘melanzana’ which comes from the latin ‘mala insana’ or ‘apple of madness’ because it used to be believed they drove you insane! It’s true they are a member of the deadly nightshade family so maybe there was something in the name back then. Who knows?
We mainly find aubergines as the big, plump fruits with glossy indigo skins but they come in a whole spectrum of shapes and colours from marbled to green even to pure white and the shape of an egg. Hence the American name ‘egg plant’.
They’re used extensively in dishes in Italy and many regions have their favoured way of cooking them. Same in Greece where they form the main part of their well known moussaka. This particular dish can be found all over Italy and most regions will lay claim to it. There are a number of variations. Some cook it as one big dish like a lasagne whilst some cook smaller individual portions, some griddle the aubergines whilst some will fry them. And those that fry them may use a light dusting of flour or may use a batter. It used to be that you had to salt aubergines to draw out the bitterness and excess moisture before you used them however I think that providing you use medium size fruit (rather than the huge ones) you can omit that step
However you choose to cook this dish the basic idea of slicing, layering and baking aubergines with tomato sauce and topped with cheese remains the same.
Here’s my way:
- Slice aubergines approx 1.5cm thick discarding the ends.
- Drizzle with oil, salt and pepper then place on a hot grill for a few mins each side. Don’t overcook as charred or burnt aubergine is unpleasant (As an alternative to grilling them, dust each slice in seasoned flour thendip in a beaten egg and fry gently on each side.)
- Allow to cool on paper towels
- Build up towers in a baking dish with layers in the following order:
- basil leaf
- 1tbsp pomodoro sauce
- thin slice of mozzarella
- Aim for 3 or 4 layers of each
- Top each tower with a very generous topping of parmesan and a grind of black pepper.
- Bake for 15-20 mins in a hot oven until the tops are browned.
You can serve hot straight out of the oven or allow to cool and serve chilled form the fridge on a hot day.