An Italian favourite
Eggplant isn't a favourite ingredient for many people that I know. I absolutely love it though :) I have tasted any different versions of Parmigiana di Melanzane over the years, but recently I tasted what must be my absolute favourite version EVER. Alfie's Pizzeria & Deli is a local restaurant situated in Hazelwood, Pretoria, where my mom and I had the opportunity to taste the most delectable eggplant Parmigiana with layers of thinly sliced eggplant, traditional Napoletana sauce, basil pesto (YUM!), and Italian hard cheese. Needless to say, after tasting this I had to develop a delicious, nutritious version of this traditional recipe to add to my go-to recipes at home.
I am not Italian, nor is my recipe a traditional Italian Parmigiana di Melanzane. I would hate to offend any true Italian followers, or their nonna by claiming that this is the real, traditional deal. I won't even try to convince you that this is the best version of the dish, especially after reading that every Italian says that their nonna makes the best Parmigiana di Melanzane ;) This is rather my own version of the dish, which is simple and easy to prepare, delicious, and very filling. In today's post, I will be sharing a bit about the history of traditional Parmigiana di Melanzane and my own take on the dish.
A Brief History
This dish is a true Italian classic. In the words of Emiko Davies it is "...resourceful, seasonal, economic, and deliciously satisfying all at once...", and I cannot agree more :) Its true origin is a much-debated topic with both the cities of Naples and Sicily claiming it as their own, and thus the true history of the dish isn't completely clear . The term "parmigiana" has been found in Italian recipe books from as early as the 14th and 15th centuries . In Italian the dish is sometimes referred to as Melanzane alla Parmigiana, which means "Parma-style eggplants" . This name is incorrect as the dish is not from Parma, which is in the North of Italy, nor does it have to be prepared with Parmesan cheese . Its true name is actually Parmigiana di Melanzane, which means "a parmigiana of eggplants" . The word "parmiciana", in Sicilian, refers to wooden shutters with horizontal slats that you typically see on houses in that region of Italy . The layers of eggplant in this dish are arranged in layers transversally to one another and look similar to the layers of wood in these shutters, hence the name Parmigiana di Melanzane [1,2].
The Basics of Melanzane di Parmigiana
In its most basic form, this dish is composed of:
- Deep-fried eggplant slices
- Simple, traditional tomato sauce
However, there are countless different takes on the dish, making it incredibly versatile and adaptable to different tastes . The most classic way of preparing the eggplant slices is by deep-frying them, either as they are or dusted with flour and dipped in egg and/or breadcrumbs . There are many different tips and tricks that are recommended for preparing the perfect eggplant. This blogpost does a pretty good job of explaining the intricacies of preparing eggplant for either grilling or frying. Peeling the eggplant before using it in the dish, for example, comes down to a matter of personal preference.
The tomato sauce used in traditional Parmigiana di Melanzane is a basic tomato sauce made with onion, tomato pureé, and basil leaves . A garlic clove may also be used, but this is not usually seen as a necessity. The idea is to keep the sauce simple and fresh to help balance the rich & hearty fried eggplant . The tomato sauce should not be over-seasoned, as the cheese will provide all of the necessary salt to the dish . On the topic of cheese (yum!), the type of cheese used in traditional Parmigiana di Melanzane differs between regions in Italy. Fresh mozzarella is commonly used in Naples to create a creamy, juicy parmigiana . True Sicilian parmigiana makes use of mature, pungent pecorino cheese, which provides a contrast to the tomato sauce and eggplant . The ingredients are layered one by one before the being baked in the oven.
My Take on the Dish
As delicious and flavoursome as deep-fried eggplant slices are, I prefer to grill or bake the slices before layering them in the baking dish to make it a bit 'lighter'. I like to slice the aubergine very thinly to ensure that it ends up cooking properly, but you can play around with the thickness of your eggplant slices as you like. Napoletana sauce is a really basic tomato sauce that can be used for many different dishes. In this recipe, I've added a grated carrot and zucchini to the sauce to boost the veggie content of the dish, which makes it a bit more hearty and filling too. To make a really traditional Italian tomato-based sauce you can leave out the carrot and zucchini and just stick to the basic ingredients :) I have also added basil pesto in between the layers to add an extra dimension to the dish. This may not be traditional, but the version that I tasted at Alfie's Pizzeria & Deli had basil pesto hidden between layers of thinly sliced eggplant and Napoletana sauce (and it was DELICIOUS :) ). If you need a recipe to make your own homemade pesto, check out my recipe for a basic homemade pesto with basil & baby spinach here. A larger batch of Parmigiana di Melanzane can be made by multiplying the ingredients in this recipe by 2 or 3 (depending on how many hungry tummies you'll be feeding).
Total time: 1h 45min
For the sauce:
- 1 tin (410 g) tomato & onion mix
- 1-2 cloves of garlic, minced
- 2 Tbsp apple cider vinegar
- 1/2 Tbsp dried oregano
- 1 Tbsp dried Italian herbs
- 1 carrot, grated (optional)
- 1 zucchini, grated (optional)
- Salt & Pepper, to taste
For the Parmigiana di Melanzane:
- 1 large eggplant, sliced thinly
- 1/2 cup hard cheese (e.g. Pecorino), grated
- 1/4 cup basil pesto
For the sauce:
- Heat the oil in a large saucepan. Add the garlic and sauté gently for a few minutes.
- Add the tinned tomato & onion mix. Rinse out the tin with 1/4 cup of water, adding this to the saucepan.
- Add the apple cider vinegar, oregano and Italian herbs. Mix together.
- As an optional step, add in the grated carrot & zucchini. Mix together.
- Allow to gently simmer for 25 minutes until it has thickened a bit.
- Use a hand-blender to pureé the sauce and disguise the grated veggies a bit.
For the Parmigiana di Melanzane:
- Preheat the oven to 180 degrees C. Line 1-2 baking sheets with baking paper.
- Slice the eggplant thinly. Place the sliced eggplant on the baking sheets, drizzle with extra virgin olive oil, and bake in the oven for 10-15 minutes. Make sure to check up on the eggplant every now and then to make sure that it doesn't burn. Remove the eggplant when cooked properly and allow to cool a bit.
- Prepare the Parmigiana di Melanzane for baking by spreading a good layer of Napoletana sauce on the bottom of a baking dish big enough for 2. Add a layer of cheese, followed by the cooked eggplant, and finally a thin layer of basil pesto. Repeat this cycle (sauce, cheese, eggplant, basil pesto). End off with a layer of sauce topped with cheese.
- Bake in the oven for 35-40 mins, until the top is golden brown and crispy (YUM!), and the sauce is bubbling.
- Remove from the oven when done and allow to rest for 10 minutes before serving.
- Serve with a fresh salad and focaccia for a full-on family meal :)
 Davies E. What Does "Classic Eggplant Parmigiana" Really Mean? [Internet]. Food52. 2015 Sep 1 [cited 2016 Dec 18]. Available from: https://food52.com/blog/13926-what-does-classic-eggplant-parmigiana-really-mean.
 Manning FR. Parmigiana di Melanzane [Internet]. Italy Magazine. 2013 Nov 22 [cited 2016 Dec 18]. Available from: http://www.italymagazine.com/recipe/parmigiana-di-melanzane.