Thursday, 7 April 2011

Aubergine, egg plant, melanzane - what’s it good for?

Melanzane Parmigiana
  Yesterday was the first really warm day of spring so we had lunch in the conservatory with our visitor, Mo, who popped in on the way back to Liverpool (where we lived until 1984 and where our children were born). It was a day for a light but tasty lunch and salads. So we had a trio of aubergine antipasti with a tomato salad and a green salad. The tomatoes were simply dressed with olive oil – Castillo de Canena, my current favourite from Spain via Waitrose – and I mixed some sweet romaine leaves with fresh garden herbs.

Liz is an aubergine sceptic so I’ve been thinking about some dishes to win her over. The flavour of this beautiful but diffident vegetable can be elusive, especially when it is served soggy with oil or overwhelmed with rich sauces.

We began with melanzane parmigiana which she pronounced ‘the best ever’. Can you grill some slices of aubergine? Can you make`a simple tomato sauce? Can you oil a mould? Then you can make melanzane parmigiana. Why make it in a mould? First because it looks better when it’s served. Second, because it controls the size of the portion, a vital consideration if you’ve ever been presented with a vast and over rich portion of melanzane oozing with cream and mozzarella. (Yuck.)

The second and third members of the trio are caponata and simply grilled aubergine dressed with balsamic glaze and lovage. The caponata also came in a mould, held together with a light savoury jelly. If you are a vegetarian you could dispense with the jelly by lightly freezing the caponata and unmoulding it while it is still very cold.

The test

When it came to awarding points, the lunch party was divided: Mo preferred the caponata whilst Liz’ favourite was the parmigiana. As for me, I loved them both. Would you serve them all at one sitting? Why not? Three aubergine antipasti - best made together because they use different parts of the vegetable.

Serves 4.

You will need 8 metal or foil moulds, ideally 8cm x 5cm and 6 cm tall.

Grilled with a balsamic glaze and lovage


3 aubergines – classic purple-black variety

50ml olive oil

for the melanzane parmigiana

1 large onion

2 cloves of garlic

4 bay leaves

1 400g tin chopped tomatoes

1tbl sugar

50g finely grated parmesan

50g fine breadcrumbs

for the caponata

1 large onion, finely chopped

1 red pepper, cut into dice

3 sticks of celery, finely chopped

2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped

2tbl pine kernels

2tbl sultanas

2tbl sugar

20ml red wine vinegar

½ vegetable stock cube

2 small sheets gelatine

2tbl balsamic glaze (if you can’t find this in the shops you can make it by reducing 3 tablespoons of balsamic vinegar with a tablespoon of soft brown sugar and half a teaspoon of cornflour to create a smooth sauce)

1 bunch of lovage or parsley finely chopped.


1. Begin by making the tomato sauce: soften finely chopped onion and garlic, then add the tomatoes, bay leaves and sugar and simmer until you have a thick sauce.

2. Oil the moulds.

3. Slice the narrow end of the aubergine to create for each mould four slices of increasing diameter so that they fit snugly into the mould. The slices should be about half a centimetre thick.

4. Fill the moulds with alternating layers of aubergine, parmesan, breadcrumbs and tomato sauce, beginning and ending with a slice of aubergine, and ensuring that the moulds are full to the top. Refrigerate.

5. Slice half the remainder of the aubergine thinly lengthwise. Oil and heat a griddle. Grill the aubergine slices until cooked through.

Caponata with grilled aubergine

6. Cut the rest of the aubergine into centimetre cubes. Fry quickly in hot oil until beginning to brown. Set aside.

7. In the same pan fry the red pepper, onion, garlic and the celery until it all softens. Clear a space in the centre of the pan, add pine kernels and cook for a couple of minutes until they start to brown. Add the sultanas. Add sugar and wine vinegar and bring to a simmer for two minutes to create the sweet sour effect essential to caponata. Now add back the aubergine.

8. Soak the gelatine in cold water to soften it. Dissolve the half stock cube in hot water in a small pan. Drain the gelatine and add to the stock, gently dissolving the gelatine on a low flame.

9. Oil four small moulds and fill each with the vegetable mixture. Then pour the gelatine fluid slowly into each one until it reaches the top. Refrigerate until the jelly sets, preferably over night..

10. To cook the melanzane parmigiana, prepare a bain marie and place the moulds in it up to their arm pits with a piece of aluminium foil on top. Place in an oven at about 170 degrees C. for 25 minutes. Take them out and let them cool for a few minutes.

11. To serve the caponata, run a knife around the inside of each mould and unmould on the plate they will be served on. Alongside them carefully place three or four griddled slices of aubergine, daintily decorated with balsamic glaze and the lovage or parsley.

12. Run a knife around the inside of the melanzane parmigiana moulds and unmould them on their serving plate.

13. You should serve the melanzane parmigiana while it is still hot, perhaps with a tomato salad.

14. The caponata and grilled aubergine you can serve alongside so that the three distinctive aubergine tastes are on display together - or keep for another meal.