Melanzane Parmigiana

It's a new year to be filled with many mouthwatering tastes and flavours. Woohoo!! Top of the ultimates is aubergine. I have a serious love affair with them, a vegetable that sadly never made it onto the table in our family due to its apparently awful texture. The only acceptable form allowed were rather deliciously pickled with chilli and garlic. One of my absolutely favourite and scrummy dishes of heaven is melanzane parmigiana. The name is slightly deceptive and there is no definitive answer as too whether it's derived from being made in Parma or made with parmesan cheese. It did originate in Sicily but is cooked all over Italy. There are many different recipes and you can substitute the aubergine with courgettes if you prefer. My version contains no parmesan, is slightly less calorific and has clean distinctive flavours. Layers of char grilled aubergine with roast tomato sauce and melted mozzarella, baked to golden perfection and eaten with crusty bread. We eat this as a main course on its own but is also delicious eaten with meat or fish.

There is much debate about whether it is necessary to salt aubergine once it has been sliced. I generally don't salt it when roasting or frying, but I do salt them for this recipe to remove some of their excess moisture. Aubergines are like sponges and will absorb as much oil as you give them. The trick is to grill them in a dry pan over a medium to high heat and just add a drop of oil to the pan when they begin to colour. This method ensures they cook quickly, lose most of their water and become wonderfully smokey in flavour.

Recipe (serves 2 as a main, 4 as a starter or side)

2-3 large aubergines
Variety of ripe tomatoes (I used a handful of cherry and 4/5 vine tomatoes)
2 or 3 shallots
4 or 5 cloves of garlic
Few sprigs fresh oregano
Mozzarella for cooking, coarsely grated
2 tbsp double cream (optional)
Half a cup of water
Olive oil
Salt and black pepper

To begin with, remove tops and slice the aubergines length ways about half an inch in thickness. Discard the first and last slices of peel. Layer the slices in a colander with a little bit of salt between each layer and leave for about 15 minutes. In the meantime preheat the oven to 200C. Cut vine tomatoes in half and keep cherries whole, place in a roasting dish with peeled and quartered shallots, 3 or 4 garlic cloves with skin still on and a few sprigs or oregano. Drizzle with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Roast for about 30 minutes until soft, caramelized and the garlic is soft. While the veg is roasting, heat a large pan over a medium to high heat, the pan should not be smoking. Remove aubergine slices from the colander, brush off salt or squeeze them gently to remove some of the water and salt. Char grill the slices in batches by placing three or four in the pan at a time. Allow them to develop lots of colour turning them a couple of times to ensure evenness. Add a tsp of oil to the pan just before removing the aubergine to encourage more colour. Remove and set aside. Repeat. 
When the tomatoes are ready, place them in a small saucepan along with the shallots and garlic flesh. Add some fresh oregano leaves and half a cup of water. Bring to the boil and simmer until soft and falling apart. Blitz into a rough sauce. Add cream and a freshly crushed clove of garlic. Season to taste.

To construct the dish: Lightly oil a 20cm casserole dish. Begin by putting 2 or 3 tablespoons of sauce in the bottom of the dish, then arrange a layer of aubergine, placing them as close together as possible. Cover with another layer of sauce and then sprinkle with mozzarella. Repeat until you have used all the ingredients. Lightly drizzle olive oil over the top and add a few oregano leaves along with some freshly ground black pepper. Bake for 20-30 minutes until golden and bubbling. Remove from the oven and allow to cool for 5 minutes before serving.

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