I’m afraid this is a bit of a cheat. Our three-day week – thanks to lovely Kate (err, Katherine) and William – has got me feeling a bit lazy, so this will be a quick post. Not only is it a quickie, it’s borrowing from my last post – Wild Garlic Pesto Risotto. In that post I made a wild garlic pesto that I used in a simple spinach risotto. Think of this recipe as the sequel. A good one. Not like Superman 4, or Rocky V. God forbid.
building the layers
This Southern Italian aubergine, tomato and cheese layered dish has an interesting nomenclature, going by eggplant parmigiana if you are North American, melanzane alla parmigiana if you are Italian and aubergine parmesan if you are British. To give it even more of an identity crisis, outside of Italy it can even include chicken or veal (both invariably breaded and fried). Although delicious in all of its bubbly, cheesy, yieldingly soft guises, most restaurant-style versions weigh in at around 900 calories. You read that right, 900 calories. That’s not including the buttery, soft breadsticks. Or the dressing laden salad that we order thinking it will magically cancel out the main course
How can a pasta-free, tomato-laden vegetarian dish wreak such calorific damage? Well, no prizes for guessing that it’s the shallow-fried bread crumb and egg-dipped filling that tips a collection of innocent vegetables into daily calorie intake shocker territory. And the aubergine version is worse than meat versions in one respect: aubergines are fat sponges. That’s where this recipe comes in. I have kept some of the oil to keep things soft and tempting, and even some crunchy white (!) breadcrumbs, but we’re keeping the layers cheese-free, save for a flourish on the top. Hopefully you will think my rehabilitation of this beautiful, vibrant dish is worthy of your time and table.
If you haven’t made the pesto yet there are probably a few suitable patches of wild garlic left by a stream or river near you – even the ones with blooms will still have plenty of taste, especially whizzed up with lemon, almonds and cheese. If not, perhaps try a lemon-sour sorrel version with plenty of garlic, or even whack extra garlic into a basil or parsley pesto. Do try it with the almonds though.
Aubergine Parmigiana – Lower Fat
Extra virgin olive oil
2 large aubergines
1 bag baby spinach, wilted and squeezed dry
Tomato Sauce (see below)
8 long wild garlic leaves – optional
1 ball fresh mozzarella, torn (lower fat is fine)
4 heaped tbsp Parmesan cheese, freshly grated
4 heaped tbsp fresh white/sourdough breadcrumbs, lightly toasted in 180C oven for eight minutes
You can approach the aubergine one of two ways. The least time consuming is to slick two baking trays with olive oil. Slice the aubergines approximately 1 cm thick and lay on the oiled trays. Brush the aubergines with a little more oil. Bake the aubergine at 200 C/400F for about 20 minutes, or until very soft and looking golden brown. Remove the aubergines from the oven. Option two is very attractive, with slightly caramelised bits, but requires a little more attention – and a griddle pan. Heat the griddle pan to medium-high, slice the aubergine as above and, using a pastry brush or similar, slick one side only of each with a touch of oil. Slap a few oil-side down onto the hot pan, and cook until the underside has griddle marks. Flip and repeat, but without adding extra oil. Do this for the remaining slices. You will end up with a pile of gorgeous, soft aubergines that you may be tempted to sprinkle with salt and eat straight off the tray. Resist.
Lower/heat the oven to 180 C/350F. In a 20 by 26 cm/8 by 10-inch pan (approximate size) place the largest slices in a single layer (I can get four slices on the bottom, representing each serving). Top each with some sauce, a thin layer of spinach, a garlic leaf and a smear of wild garlic pesto. Continue layering up until all aubergines are used. Top the final layer with sauce, lay on the mozzarella, sprinkle over the Parmesan and the breadcrumbs. Drizzle with extra oil if you like. Bake uncovered until the cheese melts and the crumbs are browned – about 30 minutes. Have a peek at 25 minutes. Enjoy with a crisp salad and the satisfaction that you’ve saved yourself about 500 calories per serving, minimum.
oven ready, bit not oil heavy
Tomato Sauce: 2 tbsp olive oil, 1 onion, diced, 2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced, 3 tbsp fresh thyme leaves or 1 tbsp dried, 1 medium carrot or ½ red pepper, 1 stalk celery – minced, 2 x 454 gm tins best quality chopped tomatoes (Cirio are my fav), salt to taste, sugar or honey to taste (if tomatoes are a bit bitter). I often add a tablespoon of balsamic vinegar too.
Heat the oil in a medium, heavy-bottomed pan (not aluminium). Add the onion and sauté gently until onion is soft – about 5 minutes; add the garlic, thyme, carrot or pepper, and celery; continue cooking for 15 minutes, until the carrot is quite soft. Add the tomatoes with their juice and bring to the boil, stirring often. Lower the heat and simmer for at least 30 minutes, until as thick as porridge; season with salt, and maybe a pinch of sugar or honey. Cool slightly, then whiz with a hand blender (or not).You can keep this sauce in the fridge for one week or freeze in an appropriate container for 3 months. Use a bought sauce to save time but this sauce is easy and doesn’t have the high levels of salt you find in the jarred stuff. Make a double batch and freeze to use as a pasta sauce, to bake over chicken or as a base for spaghetti Bolognese. The whole dish is freezable too, just add the cheese and bread crumbs before baking from frozen, adding an extra 10 minutes or so. Serves 4 generously.