Julia Busuttil Nishimura’s Silky Eggplant Parmigiana
With the summer behind us, and now autumn here, it’s a great time to cook with eggplant. While usually available all year round, this humble vegetable peaks in summer and keeps on giving well into autumn. It is a versatile vegetable – cooked over an open flame to create a smoky dip or salad, grilled and then marinated or added to stews and curries. However, one of my favourite eggplant-centric meals has to be eggplant parmigiana or parmigiana di melanzane – it’s the dish that turned this non-eggplant lover around, just a little.
This dish is comforting and wonderfully simple, albeit a little time-consuming. Simple as it requires few ingredients, time-consuming as the eggplant slices need to be fried in a good amount of oil before layering and baking. There are quicker, and less oily, ways to get the job done, but I assure you, it is well worth going down the shallow frying route for a silky texture which makes this dish so special. Many recipes also call for salting eggplants before cooking which is theoretically done to leach out any bitterness. Since most modern varieties of eggplants have had the bitterness bred out of them, I skip this step.
Parmigiana di melanzane is a southern Italian dish that uses tomatoes, eggplant, basil and mozzarella – the parmesan is the outlier, hailing from northern Italy. There are many theories on the origin of the name, the most fascinating is that parmigiana originates from the word parmiciane which, in some parts of Sicily, is used to describe Persian wooden shutters. A lovely image to embrace as you fry and layer each slice of eggplant in the dish.
While commonly served as a side dish to roast meats, I prefer this dish to be the main event, served simply with a sharply-dressed salad and a good hunk of fresh crusty bread for mopping up all of the juices.
JULIA’S EGGPLANT PARMIGIANA (SERVES 6-8)
1.2kg eggplants, sliced into 4mm thick rounds
Oil for frying
100g parmesan cheese, finely grated
400g buffalo mozzarella or fior di latte, thinly sliced
Large handful of basil leaves plus extra to serve
2tbsp extra virgin olive oil
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
A few basil leaves and their stalks
For the sauce, gently warm the olive oil in a medium saucepan over a low heat. Add in the garlic and cook until just softened but not coloured. Add in the passata, basil and a good pinch of salt. Increase the heat to medium and cook until slightly thickened (8-10 minutes). Set aside.
Preheat the oven to 180C
Fill a deep wide fry pan with 1-1.5cm of olive oil and place on a medium-high heat. Have a tray with plenty of absorbent paper at the ready. When the oil is hot (a slice of eggplant should sizzle immediately), fry the eggplant slices in batches until golden on both sides and drain well on the absorbent paper.
Have all of your ingredients and lasagne or baking dish at the ready – now it’s a matter of layering everything up. I use a 25 x 28 x 7cm but most sizes will work. Slightly smaller and the finished dish will be taller, larger and it will have less layers.
Spoon a thin layer of sauce on the base of your dish. Then arrange a layer of the fried eggplant, slightly overlapping each other, followed by another layer of sauce, some basil leaves, mozzarella slices and a good scattering of the parmesan. Repeat until you have used all of the ingredients, finishing with a layer of sauce and then a scattering of parmesan. Bake in the preheated oven for 30-35 minutes or until visibly bubbling. Allow to cool for at least two hours, even longer is ideal. If you cut the parmigiana whilst hot, just like with lasagne, it will be incredibly sloppy. Just before serving, top with extra basil leaves and serve with a salad and crusty bread.