Parmigiana di Melanzane

Think of lasagna, replace the pasta sheets with slices of fried eggplant and you have a Parmigiana di Melanzane. It took me many years to finally eat this very frugal, very simple and very delicious Italian home cooking gem and it took me even longer to finally give it a go in my own kitchen.

I have to thank the tiny Sicilian island that I mentioned earlier in May, when I wrote about Stuffed Sardines. This little rock in the Mediterranean rewards me with the best parmigiana for lunch, at a little cafe at the piazza where I sip chilled Chinotto and let my fork sink into silky layers of soft eggplant, creamy cheese and fruity tomato sauce. The island reminds me over and over again how precious good produce is, what a gift tasty vegetables are and how little I have to add as a cook when I allow the vegetables to show their humble inherent qualities.

After writing two cookbooks and sharing hundreds of recipes over the past seven years, I was worried that tiredness might keep me tethered to my minimalist cooking trip but it turns out that the opposite is true. I’m not tired of experimenting, but maybe more than ever I truly and fully appreciate when a tomato, a zucchini or a bell pepper are at their peak and simply taste good. When they taste so good that I don’t even want to cook them, my tastebuds have an epiphany. It’s not the complex layering in a dish, or the newly discovered combination of flavours that have rarely been combined before, but it is the purest taste of good produce melting in my mouth that makes me the happiest muncher in the world.

On this tiny Sicilian island that I love so much I pick my fruit and vegetables straight from the fields surrounding the house where we live. My early morning walks, to pick what I need for the day before the hot summer sun hits fruit, flowers and leaves, before the plants daily struggle for light, shade and water begins, have taught me more about food in the past few years than any cookbook or food show. Plants follow simple rules, they obey a rhythm. To work – as a cook – with that rhythm and not against it, creates utmost pleasure.

This year, northern Sicily and its surrounding islands didn’t have enough rain. Lentils didn’t grow, instead their plants dried out on the fields, lemons stayed tiny, the fruits barely having any juice, but on the other side pomodori, tomatoes, grew so abundantly that our friends who have their own fields couldn’t keep up collecting and using them. So they gathered one day to make passata, blanched, pureed and strained tomatoes turned into the purest sauce, and bottled their ‘red gold’ for the colder months to come. If nature gives them tomatoes abundantly, they turn them into a tomato feast. Maybe next year it will be lentils, who knows, but it will definitely reflect in their cooking.

So my friend Pietro gave me a bottle of his deep red passata and although I would have loved to just drink it, I decided to let the sun-kissed concentrated tomato juices shine in a dish that I enjoy so much when I’m in Sicily: I decided to cook my first Parmigiana di Melanzane. This dish is so simple yet there are a million recipes, tricks and variations and every Italian will say that their mamma definitely makes the best. And every one of them is right because there isn’t just one recipe that is the best but there is one rule that almost every Italian follows with verve and passion: the ingredients need to be of excellent quality.

You won’t need many ingredients for a parmigiana but make sure to use nice, plump eggplants, good fior di latte or mozzarella and Parmesan and most importantly: invest in the best passata you can possibly find. It’s also fine to make a tomato sauce from scratch, using tinned or fresh tomatoes and your favoured seasoning, but for this dish, a simple sauce made of Italian passata, garlic, a dash of olive oil, basil, salt and pepper hits the spot. You don’t want a sauce that’s too dominant as it’s only going to play with humble fried eggplants and mainly mild cheese. It’s not a sauce I would use for pasta, it’s subtle and also more liquid than my usual red sauce, but it bathes the eggplant in the perfect summer-ripe fruitiness. This simple sauce with its deep taste of Mediterranean tomatoes is what makes or breaks your parmigiana.

My recipe is for 4 to 5 people, we enjoyed it over two days, hot, warm and cold, but I wished I had doubled the recipe!

Parmigiana di Melanzane

Serves 4 to 5

  • 1.2 kg / 2 2/3 pounds eggplants, cut lengthwise into 5mm / 0.2″ thick slices
  • Fine or flaky sea salt
  • 3 fior di latte or mozzarella (each 125g / 4.5 ounces)
  • Olive oil
  • 2 large cloves garlic, crushed
  • About 750ml / 3 1/4 cups Italian passata di pomodoro (if your passata isn’t very tasty, use about 1l / 4 1/4 cups passata, bring it to a boil and reduce until you have the desired amount. Alternatively: Make the same amount of sauce with tinned or fresh tomatoes)
  • 1 large handful fresh basil leaves, roughly chopped
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • Vegetable oil, for frying
  • 60g / 2 ounces Parmesan (preferably aged), finely grated

Spread the eggplant slices on cooling racks, generously sprinkle with salt, gently rubbing the eggplants with the salt, then flip and sprinkle the other side with salt. Let the eggplants sit for about 1 hour then rinse with cold water and pat dry with kitchen paper.

Place the fior di latte (or mozzarella) in a colander, let sit for 1 hour then cut into small cubes.

In a large pot, heat a splash of olive oil over medium heat, add the garlic and cook for about 2 minutes or until golden. Add the passata and bring to a boil. Stir in the basil and season to taste with salt and pepper (mind that the Parmesan will also add saltiness to the final dish!); immediately remove the sauce from the heat and set aside.

Preheat the oven to 200°C / 400°F and grease a roughly 20x30cm / 8×12″ baking dish with a little olive oil.

In a large heavy pan, over high heat, heat enough vegetable oil to come up the side of the pan about 1.25cm / 0.5″. When the oil is sizzling hot, fry the eggplant slices in batches, arranging them side by side and turning them once, for about 30-60 seconds or until golden but not dark (see picture below). Spread and drain the fried eggplant on kitchen paper and continue frying the remaining eggplant slices.

Arrange a layer of eggplant slices in the prepared baking dish, spreading them side by side, then season with a little (!) salt and pepper, sprinkle with some of the fior di latte and Parmesan and drizzle with some of the sauce. Repeat to make more layers (about 4 layers total), finishing the last layer with cheese and sauce. Bake for about 40 minutes or until bubbly then turn off the oven, tilt or open the oven door and let the parmigiana sit in the oven for 10 minutes or even for 1 hour or longer to let it soak the juices (I let mine sit in the oven for 2 hours, temperature and texture were just right when we ate it). Enjoy the parmigiana warm but not hot straight out of the oven; we even had some cold for breakfast.