“You know how to make parmigiana, yes?” Stefania and I are standing outside the restaurant with the rest of the choir, waiting for a table to come free. Whoever was in charge of this evening’s outing has forgotten to make any reservations and as there are about twenty of us the restaurant is having to do some shuffling to fit us in. Food is, of course, on our minds. I nod at her and then qualify: “Well, in theory. I’ve *eaten* lots of good ones so I should be able to recreate it…” She throws up her hands. “Bellamia! OK, here’s what you do …” She rattles off the process as I concentrate on the double whammy of following a verbal recipe and understanding rapid Italian interspersed with Calabrese phrases. She comes to the end. “Va bene?” I nod again and she laughs. “OK, I’ll email you. Not just that, but all our Calabrese classics.” She pats me on the arm. “We’ll make a Calabrisella of you yet.”
Back in the UK for the summer, I’m in charge of cooking for my mum’s birthday picnic. It was meant to be a surprise, but when my brothers and I started asking unsubtle theoretical questions along the lines of ‘if you could eat anything you wanted, what would it be’ and looking horrified when she answered ‘beef carpaccio and lobster’, the game was up.
There’s a heady scent of tomatoes and basil from the red sauce that I’ve got simmering and I’m slicing the aubergines for the parmigiana when Mum appears, following her nose. To be fair, she *is* a professional and it *is* her kitchen – I’m just a summer imposter – but she’s making it exceptionally hard for me to keep the menu a secret, damn her.
“What are you making?” I waft her away. “Oh, just stuff. You know.” She won’t be fobbed off that easily, though. “Look, I know there’s something going on, and you’ve clearly been dumped with sorting it all out, so why don’t you let me help?” I raise a warning eyebrow at her and shake my head, but instead of taking the hint she starts poking about in the pile of food that I’ve got waiting to be prepped on the counter. I give up: in the interests of losing a battle but maybe winning a war and getting her to leave so that I can get on, I admit that I’m making parmigiana. Her eyes light up. “Really? Mum used to make that.”
I talk her through it in much the same way that Stefania did for me, telling her the adjustments that I’ve made to the recipe. “Well, you’re supposed to fry the aubergines, but I prefer to roast them – it’s less time-consuming.” I drizzle oil over the second tray of purple-skinned vegetable slices and shuffle Mum out of the way to get to the oven. “Also far better than standing over a hob being spattered with boiling olive oil.” I latch the roasting oven’s door closed, then open the simmering one and pull the red sauce out to check its progress. Mum peers over my shoulder at the thick, dark red tomatoes, blopping away in their pot like basil-scented lava. “What’s that? It smells fantastic.” I smirk. “Onion, garlic, passata, basil: bring it up to the boil and leave it to simmer down.” She looks at me. “That’s it?” I grin. “Yep. So now I’ve shared my secrets, tell me yours: how do you do decent beef carpaccio on this bloody AGA …?”
- 1 aubergine (approx 380-400g)
- 1 large onion (approx 100-120g)
- 1 garlic clove
- 1 700g jar passata
- 1 double handful (loosely held) of basil
- Approx 100g of provola dolce or cacciocavallo cheese (see note 1)
- Approx 100g of parmigiano reggiano cheese
- Cut the ends off the aubergine, along with an outer sliver of skin from either side, and discard
- Cut lengthways into medium-thick slices. Layer with coarse salt in a colander, weight and leave to drain while you prepare the tomato sauce (see note 2)
- Crush the garlic with salt and heat in olive oil
- Add the diced onion and sweat slowly with a lid on until soft
- Pour in the jar of passata and put the lid back on
- Wash and pick over the basil. Remove the stalks and rip the leaves into small pieces. (see note 3)
- Add the basil to the pot, stir in and put the lid back on. Leave the sauce to simmer gently for 20-30 minutes until thickened and darkened in colour
- Rinse and dry the aubergine slices. (see note 2) Lay them in a roasting tin and coat with olive oil. Roast in a 200C oven for 30 minutes or until soft and browned
- Put a thin layer of tomato sauce into the bottom of a casserole dish. Put a layer of aubergines over the top of it. Add another layer of tomato sauce. Grate parmesan over it, then add slices of provola.
- Add another layer of aubergines, laying them at 90 degrees to the first layer. Repeat the tomato and cheese additions
- Keep going until you've run out of aubergines and sauce. Finish the dish with a layer of grated parmigiano
- Cover with tinfoil and bake in a 180C oven for 30 minutes
- Remove the tinfoil and allow the dish to brown up for a further 10-15 minutes
- Serve warm or cold
- 1: Substitute mozzarella or mild cheddar if you can't get provola or cacciocavallo
- 2: Salting and weighting is optional - if your aubergine has a lot of seeds it's a good idea, as they can make it bitter. Salting, rinsing and then drying the aubergine slices by laying them onto one half of a clean teatowel, folding the other half over and pressing firmly with your hands will also help to stop them absorbing too much oil.
- 3. Don't chop basil with a knife - it encourages scorpions if you're superstitious, and bruises the leaves, turning them black, if you're not