A global symbol of Italian cuisine, melanzane alla parmigiana (also known as aubergine parmigiana, eggplant parmigiana, aubergine parmesan, or eggplant parm) is at the heart of a gastronomic dispute between various regions – particularly Sicily and Naples.
With both areas claiming the original recipe, the famous dish’s exact origins aren’t absolutely certain, though its known that aubergines first arrived in Italy during the 15th century, brought to Sicily from India. Instead of ‘parmesan’, the dish’s ‘parmigiana’ moniker is actually said to derive from the Sicilian word ‘parmiciana’ which describes a wooden shutter with slats in a cascading, partially overlapping formation, as is the case with traditional aubergine parmigiana. The first historical evidence of the dish, prepared similarly to the well-loved modern version dates back to the 1830s, published in Naples by Ippolito Cavalcanti in “Cusina casarinola co la lengua napolitana”, described as a dish of the poor, using aubergine as a protein substitute for meat. Realistically it’s thus believed aubergine parmigiana has Sicilian origins, landing in Naples as a natural consequence of the Neapolitan domination of the island.
From region to region (in Italy and over the world), aubergine parmigiana continues to be made with greatly varying recipes. The aubergine and tomato-based sauce are essential, but the aubergine’s cooking process and techniques differ, while different cheeses are favoured in different regions. In Sicily, Caciocavallo cheese is typical, while mozzarella is common in Campania. On a global scale, mozzarella has become the most popular cheese for the filling (besides parmesan), particularly in America where various types of parmigiana are popular. The famous American aubergine parmigiana (or eggplant parmigiana) recipe is fairly similar to the Neapolitan version, though the aubergine slices are generally breaded and deep-fried.
This aubergine parmigiana errs towards the Italian-American play on the dish, with the aubergine slices breaded and fried, then layered with a tomato sauce and mozzarella slices, capped with a generous blizzard of parmesan, which creates a delicious crust.
- Draining/cooling rack
- Large pan for frying
- large roasting tray/tin
- 2 large aubergines
- 1 medium onion finely chopped
- 1 tsp chilli flakes
- Small bunch basil stalks chopped, leaves ripped (4 leaves reserved for garnish)
- 6 cloves garlic finely sliced
- 100 ml red wine
- 3 x 400g tins peeled tomatoes finely chopped
- 1 tsp dried oregano
- 1 tsp white sugar
- 100 g parmesan grated
- 250 g buffalo mozzarella sliced (approx.)
- 150 g breadcrumbs I like to use blitzed olive oil crackers or crostini to add more flavour, but regular breadcrumbs are fine if need be
- Plain flour for dusting
- 2 large free-range eggs beaten
- Neutral oil for frying
- Olive oil
- Freshly ground black pepper
- To begin, cut the top and tail off the aubergines and peel. Slice vertically into 3-5mm slices. Lay over a draining/cooling rack and season each slice with a generous pinch of salt. Leave for 1-2 hours to allow the excess moisture to drain. Half way through draining, turn the aubergine slices over and season the other sides to drain.
- While the aubergine is draining, prepare your sauce. Cover the base of a large sauce pan with olive oil and heat for 30 seconds until shimmering. Add the finely chopped onion to the pan and stir. Season with a pinch of salt, decrease the heat to low, cover the onions and cook for around 10 minutes, stirring often.
- Once the onions are soft and translucent, add the chilli flakes, basil stalks, and finely sliced garlic to the pan. Increase the heat and cook for one minute. Keep stirring to prevent the garlic from burning.
- Add the red wine to the pan and stir. Cook for another five minutes or so, until the wine has reduced by 2/3. Once the wine has reduced, add the tomatoes to the pan. Fill one of the empty tins with water and add that to the pan, too. Throw half the ripped basil leaves, oregano, and 1 teaspoon white sugar into the pan and slowly bring to the boil.
- When the sauce begins to boil, decrease the heat and cook slowly for around 30 minutes or until thickened, stirring occasionally to prevent it from catching. Once cooked, set aside.
- Once the aubergine has drained, pat dry and heat a large pan half filled with a neutral frying oil. Set up a breading station by lining up a bowl of flour seasoned with salt and cracked black pepper; two beaten eggs; and the breadcrumbs.
- Using a wet hand/dry hand method, dip the aubergine into the seasoned flour to coat, then move to the beaten egg, then finally dip into the breadcrumbs until completely coated. Transfer the breaded aubergine slices to a rack while completing the process with the remaining aubergine.
- Once the oil is hot enough for deep frying (test by dropping a breadcrumb in – once it sizzles furiously the oil is ready), place each breaded aubergine slice into the oil and fry for 2-3 minutes on each side until golden. It doesn’t matter if the oil doesn’t cover the aubergine. Drain the cooked aubergine on a clean rack and cook the remaining pieces in batches.
- Preheat the oven to 180C/Gas 4.
- Once the aubergine is fried, line a large roasting tray/tin with a thin layer of the tomato sauce. Assemble the fried aubergine slices in an even layer, then top with a small dollop of tomato sauce (making sure the aubergine isn’t drowning in sauce), then mozzarella slices. Top with another layer of aubergine, more tomato and more mozzarella, until you run out of aubergine or run out of space. You may need to trim some slices to make them fit. Also, attempt to save some of the sauce for serving. Finally top the dish with a generous heap of grated parmesan.
- Place in the oven for approximately 35 minutes, or until the top is crispy. Remove from the oven and leave to stand for at least 10 minutes to allow the cheese and aubergine to firm up, ultimately preventing the aubergine parmigiana from becoming soupy.
- Serve over a thin layer of reheated tomato sauce, if any remains, and garnish with a basil leaf.
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