Yet again, I have chosen the hottest day of the year so far to make a parmigiana. Vincenzo, who only occasionally summons up relatives to make points about cooking, reminds me that his Sicilian grandmother Sara used to fry or bake early in the day during summer, so that by 9am, 10am at the latest, the oven was pretty much off for the day. It is 3pm, and I could probably cook on one of the car bonnets on the street outside; certainly on one of the shop shutters. I roll my eyes and tell him to go and make lace.
I am reminded that parmigiana-making shares much with lasagne-making: it takes twice as long as you imagine, uses more pots and plates than seem necessary, and makes more mess than reasonable. Mess that is then forgiven and forgotten once you have cleaned up and before you is the deep, heavy and contained joy that is a slatted-blind bake of aubergine, rich tomato sauce, cheese, more cheese and basil.
Having already written about the velvety delight that is parmigiana made with fried aubergine, this week’s recipe is an alternative: grilled aubergine parmigiana, or what the wonderful La Cucina Italiana refers to as “una parmigiana light”, which it describes as “carnosa, gustosa e consistente … da non sottovalutare” (meaty, tasty, consistent and not to be underestimated). Do not underestimate how long it takes to griddle the aubergine slices – ages! You should feel as if you have been grilling for days (although it is probably only 45 minutes), and don’t rush if you want to cook them properly; that is, cooked through so they’re soft, tasty, deep gold and seared with lines. It is also important to salt the slices on the plate. Don’t rush the sauce, either: allow it to blip, so the end result is rich and thick. Remember, too, to drain the mozzarella in a sieve for a few hours to get rid of the extra liquid. (Or use smoked provola, instead, which is also lovely here.)
The other thing parmigiana shares with lasagne is that it is better after a rest, and better still if that rest is a few hours – half a day even (some go so far as to suggest overnight). This is not just so the new baked form can settle and firm up, but so the flavours settle, too. You can then reheat it gently, or just under the grill, although if, like me, you have decided to embark on a parmigiana at 3pm and bake it at four on the hottest day of the year, come 10pm, a floor tile-sized portion with a side of vinegary salad and the scent of mosquito coil will be as near as possible to perfect.
Parmigiana di melanzane grigliate – parmigiana with grilled aubergine
1 small onion, peeled and finely diced
2 x 400g tins plum tomatoes, milled or mashed with a potato masher, or 800g fresh tomatoes, peeled and crushed
At least 20 basil leaves
6 large aubergines
400g mozzarella (or provola), drained and cut into thin, shaggy slices
120g grated parmesan
Make the sauce. In a deep pan, fry the onion very gently in a couple of tablespoons of olive oil, until translucent and soft, then add the tomatoes and a few basil leaves, and simmer for 20 minutes, until rich and thick.
Top and tail the aubergines, then cut them lengthways into 5mm-to 7mm-thick slices. Get an iron griddle pan hot and, working in batches, grill the aubergines first on one side, then the other, until cooked through and dark gold – each side will take about four minutes, so settle in. When ready, lay on a large plate and sprinkle with salt.
Spread a little tomato sauce in the bottom of a roughly 30cm x 20cm ovenproof dish, then cover with a layer of aubergine, overlapping the slices slightly. Cover with this with another thin layer of sauce, using the back of a spoon to spread it out, then top with mozzarella (or provola), some parmesan and a few basil leaves. Make another layer of aubergine, and repeat the layers until all the ingredients are used up.
Bake in the middle of the oven heated to 180C (160C fan)/350F/gas 4 for 25 minutes, then remove and leave to rest for at least an hour before serving.