Parmigiana à la Babs

Of those vegetables beginning with A, aubergines are my favourite with their pleasing shiny, purple skins and pithy, spongy inner flesh. I think it was in the late 1970s when the colour mauve became aubergine. In Bolton at any rate. I had a wet-look mac in this new-fangled colour and wore it over an aubergine coloured midi dress with integrated pale pink blouse and hot pants. It was an all-in-one, but not a onesie. Around the same time I became aware of aubergines, and red and green peppers which were considered exotic, but took a while longer to appear on the market stall where I had a Saturday job.

Back in the room with the aubergines, they are vegetable royalty in many cultures and take centre stage in dishes from Middle Eastern stuffed aubergines Imam Bayildi to the smoky Baba Ganush dip, Greek Moussaka to French Ratatouille, African Groundnut Stew to Indian Brinjal Bhajia.

Either the tiny edible seeds inside or the egg-shape of the pod itself have given rise to the alternative name of eggplant. Botanically speaking the aubergine is a berry. It is high in fibre, vitamins B1, B6, and the minerals magnesium and potassium. Along with most fruit and veg, the aubergine is rich in antioxidants – said to help neutralise damaging free radicals in our bodies and boost overall health. For this reason aubergines play a key role in the Mediterranean diet, including helping to lower cholesterol (though less so if loaded with high fat foods like meat, cream and cheese). As a bonus the antioxidant nasunin is responsible for the purple colour of the skin, for which we give thanks.

There is a great variety of shapes and colours when it comes to aubergines. I use the baby brinjal for curried dishes and long thin or stripy ones in dishes where the outer skin is a feature. Use sturdy plump purple ones for the Italian Parmigiana dish that follows.

In a previous London life a trip down the road to Southall in search of aubergines from the market stores took in a riot of colours and aromas. The dash was not complete without a fix of samosas from the original Shahanshah, North Road, to take home as a treat. Some would make it, others would be eaten in the car on the way home, fresh and warm from the frier.

I always associate this dish with Barbara Mottershead AKA “Babs”, whose party piece it was. So the following recipe lives on as Parmigiana à la Babs, in remembrance of good dinners shared and as a template for those to come. And so the labour of love begins. Three factors will lead to ultimate success: the cooking of the aubergine slices which must result in them being really tender; the thick richness of the sauce; and finally the care that goes into the making which is a requisite part of the recipe and not to be messed with.

As so many good recipes do … kindly start with a medium onion chopped, 2-3 cloves of garlic crushed and 2 x 15ml (table)spoons olive oil. Sauté gently until soft and translucent.
Next, add 2 x 400g cans of tomatoes, 150 ml red wine, pinch of sugar, 1 x 5ml (tea)spoon dried oregano, a bayleaf and a chopped carrot for herby sweetness, and simmer for 30-40 mins until it goes from this to …
… this level of unctuousness. Use a stick blender if you want a smoother sauce – but fish out the bayleaf first.
The recipe calls (yoo-hoo) for 2 substantial aubergines. Prepare by removing the stalk, halving lengthways, then cutting into 5mm slices. Sprinkle with salt and set aside in a colander for 30 minutes before rinsing and patting dry with a tea-towel or kitchen paper.
The aubergine slices need either to be blanched (cooked in boiling water), fried in batches on a griddle or in a frying pan or baked in the oven. On this occasion, I blanched half of the aubergine slices in boiling water for 2 minutes, then drained them. This method means the dish contains less oil – if this is something that matters to you.
The other half of the aubergines I lavished with olive oil on a baking sheet and baked at 180 degrees C for 20 mins. This is my favourite method. It is quick, uses little oil, produces a tender slice with a good flavour and you may as well make full use of the oven whilst it is on. In future I would use this one method for all the aubergine slices rather than doing half and half – the preference is yours.
Grate 150g mozzarella (or substitute with cheddar) and 100g parmesan and make 50g breadcrumbs – I used some wheatmeal soda bread crumbs from the freezer.
Assemble in a greased ovenproof dish by alternately layering tomato sauce, aubergine slices and the grated cheeses.
The assembly of closely packed aubergine slices in a fairly shallow dish is a feature of the Parmigiana. Sauce on both sides of the aubergines mean the flavour is absorbed and slices remain juicy.
End with a top layer of cheese and breadcrumbs. Bake at 180 degrees C for 30 minutes until golden brown and sizzling.
Garnish with torn basil leaves sprinkled on top.
Served here with green leafy salad and golden rice salad.
For a quick brunch or supper, because it’s good at any time of day, serve any leftovers on lightly toasted bread and Babs yer uncle, you’ve got Parmigiana Bruschetta – 2 for 1.