Sunday, 8 January 2012

Recipe/Ricetta - Melanzane al Forno con Pecorino (Parmigiana)

This rich, tomato-ey, cheesy oven-baked food just may be my most favourite dish in the entire world, and I suppose it's considered by my friends and family to be my signature dish. It's not remotely Venexiano however; both Campania and Sicilia claim it for their own....but since Campania was formerly part of il Regno di Sicilia, this is not surprising. For me, this is the ultimate comfort food!

It is popularly known as Parmigiana Melanzane, which most non-Italians erroneously believe comes from the use of the hard cheese, Parmigiano-Reggiano. However, the name actually reflects the arrangement of the melanzana; since each slice slightly overlaps the previous, it resembles the slats on a wooden shutter. In dialetto siciliano, 'parmiciana' means 'wooden shutter slats', while 'palmigiana' is the shutter itself. Parmigiana is merely a corruption of these words, and nothing to do with the cheese. In addition, Parmigiano-Reggiano comes from the northern Italian regions of Emilia-Romagna & Lombardia, so it's highly unlikely that it would form part of a southern culinary tradition!

Who says cookery is not educational?!

I have tried to make lower-fat versions (brushing the melanzana with oil then grilling - not as much depth of flavour and richness; just coating with flour but no pre-grilling or frying - completely lame! Thin-tasting and bland.) but honestly, it’s not something you’d eat every day of the week, so I don’t see it as a problem to have the fully-leaded version! Since I cook it perhaps once every six to eight weeks, I can live with the extra fat!

At first glance, it may seem like a bit of faffing around but honestly, it’s really worth the effort, and if you've already made your sugo, half the work is already done.

Melanzane al Forno con Pecorino
Nutritional values per serving:
Calories: 472
Carbohydrate: 32g
Sugar: 13g
Protein: 22g
Fat: 31g
Sodium:  249mg
(Please note that these are based on the ingredients I used - your own may be slightly different)

For four-ish people…depends on how hungry they are!
1 kilo melanzana (aubergine) 
30g Plain flour 
2 beaten eggs 
Seasoning (sea-salt, freshly cracked black pepper) 
3tbsp oil for frying (don't use your best olive oil)
.5L sugo (please click for the recipe)
250g whole-milk mozzarella - up to you which type you use. I find some are a bit too flaccid for my liking - Burrata from Puglia is one. My all-time favourites come from Campania, and I prefer them very fresh, when they are at their most elastic. Mozzarella gets softer and creamier as it matures, which can be nice, but for this recipe, I find a more stretchy mozzarella works better. If you want to try something different, Scamorza affumicata is a wonderful smoked mozzarella, also from southern Italia (Puglia).
25g Pecorino - Pecorino Toscano is my favourite (from Toscana/Tuscany) but you can also get P.Romano (from Roma), P.Sardo (from Sardinia) and P.di Pienza (from Siena).

1. First, prepare your melanzane by slicing them quite thickly (1cm-1.5cm thick). Put them in a colander and sprinkle with salt. Weigh them down (I use a side plate, with a heavy cast-iron pan on top) and leave in the sink for half an hour or so (the salt will extract any bitterness, making the aubergines ‘sweat’).
2. Turn the oven on - a medium-high heat is fine (mine is in Celsius, so I generally have it about 175).
3. If you haven’t already made your sugo, do it now! If you have, congratulations! Put your feet up with a good book and a glass of wine for half an hour!
4. Once the melanzana is ready, rinse well and pat dry with a clean tea-towel or kitchen roll. At this point, you can also do the same with the mozzarella - rinse it, and dry it. Leave it wrapped up, and put to one side for now.
5. Time to pre-cook the melanzana! By far the easiest and least messy way of flouring the melanzana is to put the flour into a large plastic bag, along with the seasoning. Dip the slices into the beaten egg, then add to the bag; hold the top of the bag closed, and shake it all up. If you really enjoy getting messy, you can take each slice, dip it into the egg, then into the flour yawn!….but of course, you’ll then get eggy-floury goo all over your hands and wine glass! And I can almost guarantee your ‘phone will ring too!
6. Once your melanzana is egged and floured, it’s time to lightly fry it. You want it just turning golden, and it’s best to do it a few slices at a time. If you don’t, there’ll be too much steam and the melanzana will just be soggy. You’re basically aiming to give each slice a little fried coat, not to actually cook it! Drain on kitchen roll and set to one side for a moment.
7. Unwrap the mozzarella and cut it into about .5cm slices. Grate the pecorino too.
8. Now you can build the dish (I find a lasagne dish is best but don’t worry if you don’t have one - any ovenproof container at least 7cm deep would be fine). Start with a thin layer of sugo, arrange a layer of melanzana so that each slice slightly overlaps its neighbour (like slats on a shutter), then add a layer of sugo, and then a layer of mozzarella. Continue this way, finishing with a layer of sugo. Finally, sprinkle your grated pecorino on the top (how much you use is entirely up to you - I like a thin ‘crust’ but some people like it thick - don't forget to count the extra cals etc. if you use more). 
9. Bake in the oven for about 45 mins. Do check it though because as we know, all ovens are not created equal - you don’t want it to burn. The dish is cooked when it is starting to brown on top and the melanzana is soft. (Note: undercooked melanzane are antipatica (nasty!), so do make sure they really are very soft).

I serve this with a simple insalata verde (green salad; rocket, baby spinaci, watercress, and a little bit of sorrel to give a bit of zing), some fresh crusty bread, extra virgin olive oil (for dipping the bread in), and a good red wine: Valpolicella is a lovely every day wine but I find that in the UK it’s hard to get it young, which I prefer. In Venexia I tend to have it with every meal…well, not breakfast! If I’m splashing out a bit, I go for a Barolo!

Buon appetito!

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