This was a year of a BIG birthday, with all the accompanying pressures to throw a party. But, I’m not a party kind of persona. Posh frocks and loud music aren’t my style. Plus the birthday was back in April, around Easter, with a strong likelihood of bluster and downpours. So despite demurring and equivocating, I was eventually pursuaded that I could hold a summer party, an official, Queen’s birthday, if you like.
My allotment site is tucked away on a hillside in Birmingham. The entrances are out of the way and hidden. You have to find your way down unadopted roads, or have a key for a gate in the woodland known only to dog walkers and spliff smoking kids. These semi-concealed gateways conceal the size and beauty of the space. They lead you to unexpected views over rolling valleys of trees; an incongruously bucolic setting, in the middle of a sprawling conurbation. There are plots of enviable order and control, where pristine sheds are equipped with wood burners and bunting flutters on verandas. There are plots given over entirely to callaloo and spuds. And there is mine, given over mostly to weeds and dahlias. Most importantly though, aside from all this verdancy, there is a clubhouse, complete with bar, pool tables and a glitterball. It seemed the natural place to throw a party; remote and low key, when the idea of throwing a party induces waves of social anxiety.
I decided to do the food. I was on a budget, and thought it better to stick money behind the bar than throw it the way of sagged microwaved samosas. I thought it a no brainer. Just because the oven was still on the fritz, the freezer was full up with beans and raspberries, and there was a small matter of a full time job, none of these needed to be an obstacle to cooking for 60.
But for the main, I needed something that could be made in advance and reheated on the day. Something vegetarian, but with enough umph to fool the carnivores. Also, something allotment appropriate – allowing me to show off, and say ‘of course, I grew the ingredients’ (well, some of them).
It seemed, therefore, a parmigiana appropriate event. I cleared out the freezer, co-opted a friend’s cooker and raided Poundland for their entire stock of foil roasting trays.
If you’re new to this dish, it is a staple of the south (disregard the name, it’s not from Parma) If there’s such a thing as a Sicilian pot luck supper, this is what you take. You see it for sale in cafes to take away with you, but equally, it’s a surefire way of wrestling the aubergines and tomatoes under control, as they start to overwhelm you in August. At the end, you get a rib sticker of a dish, that can be frozen for darker days.
It’s a laborious process – involving a fry-a-thon, with all the accompanying smoke and splatters and grease spots. It’s an extractor full on, windows flung wide and back door open type of recipe, but I promise you, it’s worth it.
Sliced aubergine is plunged into hot, deep olive oil and cooked to a roast chicken skin brown on both sides. Drain the slices on kitchen roll and then layer, in a deep oven dish, with passata, basil and mozzarella When you’ve filled the house with haze, and the dish with aubergine, grate namesake Parmesan over the top and bake until bubbling and brown.
Now, you can eat it straight away, or you can let it cool, then refrigerate and have it cold (or reheated) the next day. When it will be better by miles! It is best with hunks of crunchy bread that you use to wipe up the carnelian-red sauce and wrap with strings of elastic mozzarella.
Parmigiana di melanzane. (4 greedy people, 6 at a push).
There are some very complicated versions of this recipe around, with added herbs, red wine, nuts. Feel free to try them, but I think that the success of this dish is its simplicity. It is typical of much of the food of Sicily, in that it is home cooking, making use of the best of whatever is available,. The more flavours and textures you add, ironically, the more you lose. Like so many Italian recipes, especially in the south, you are actually only relying on three or four main ingredients to get the end effect.
- 6 big, purple aubergines. Sliced lengthways, just over 0.5 cm thick.
- Olive oil (be generous)
- 300g mozarella (ideally buffalo)
- Fresh basil
- 100g Parmesan, grated
- Black pepper
- 2 cloves of garlic
- 1 litre passata
- Salt the sliced aubergines, leaving them to drip for an hour, then rinse and pat dry (this is not to remove bitterness, but moisture, so that they are firmer when fried).
Now start frying the slices, a few at a time, in enough oil to almost submerge the slices. They will absorb a lot of the oil, which is part of the end flavour, and texture. You can, for economy or health, grill or oven bake, but it will be an entirely different dish at the end.
Into a little cold olive oil, add crushed garlic, and gently heat it up until the garlic is on the edge of golden brown. Add the passata and bring to a simmer for up to 30 minutes, reducing it down by about a third.
Next is the easy bit, Blue Peter cooking.
Put a layer of aubergine slices on the bottom of your oven dish, then add torn blobs of mozarella, basil leaves, about a fifth of the parmesan, black pepper and enough tomato sauce to smooth over and cover everything. Add another layer of aubergines, and repeat the cheese sauce process.
Keep doing this until you have filled you dish (probably 4-5 layers), and finish with a generous helping of parmesan and black pepper.
Bake at 200 degrees C/ Gas mark 6 for 30-45 minutes (you want a browned top and bubbling edges)
Leave for at least ten minutes before serving – longer if you can; overnight ideally. And before you serve, throw some more fresh basil over the top.