This dish makes a great vegetarian alternative to lasagne. It has umpteen variations, particularly in the pre-cooking of the aubergines, and there isn’t necessarily a ‘correct’ way of making it. My version has evolved from a recipe in Sophie Grigson’s book ‘Food for Friends’, which inspired many meals I cooked at university. Grigson recommends steaming the aubergines, and she adds porcini. Mine has no porcini and I prefer to grill the aubergines. Cousin Hannah’s tip for pre-cooking aubergines, picked up from Ottolenghi’s recipe for pasta alla Norma, is to coat the aubergine in a few tbsp of oil and a little salt before roasting in the oven, on parchment paper at a high heat for 30 minutes.
Basic tomato sauce
2 tbsp olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 carrot, peeled and diced
1 stick celery, diced
2 tins chopped tomatoes
1 tsp tomato purée
1 tsp sugar
½ tsp salt
½ tsp each dried basil and dried oregano
1 bay leaf
2 medium-large aubergines
100ml olive oil
2 balls mozarella
150g grated parmesan cheese
You will also need an oven-proof dish in which to cook it.
First, make your tomato sauce (this can be done well in advance). Heat the oil in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Add all the chopped vegetables and cook, stirring regularly, for about 8 minutes on a low-ish heat until everything is softened. Raise the heat and add all the rest of the ingredients. Bring to a simmer, cover and cook over a low heat for at least 30 minutes. Longer, slower cooking (ideally in the oven – 160/140 fan – for an hour or more) will improve the flavour.
Meanwhile, cut the aubergines into 5mm slices, sprinkle with salt and leave in a colander to drain for half an hour.
Set your grill to a high heat. Rinse the aubergines well, and dry thoroughly with kitchen paper. Arrange on a grill tray and brush each slice with olive oil. Grill for 5 minutes, or until the aubergine slices are looking lightly browned. Turn them over, brush the other side with oil and grill again.
Preheat the oven to 180/160 (fan) and lightly oil your baking dish. Cut each mozarella ball in half and slice across to create 14-16 pieces from each mozarella. Grate the parmesan and get everything together for assembling the dish: tomato sauce, mozarella, parmesan and aubergines.
Spread the bottom of the dish with a thin layer of tomato sauce, followed by a layer of aubergines (half of them), mozzarella (a third of what you have) and 3 tbsp parmesan. Add another layer of tomato sauce, the rest of the aubergines, another third of the mozarella and 3 tbsp parmesan. Finish with a final layer of sauce, mozarella and the rest of the parmesan.
Bake in the oven for 35-40 minutes until golden brown and bubbling. Allow to cool slightly before serving.