Alaska during the winter of 1966. Mrs Stanfill was talking about dilemmas. ‘What if you went to a friend’s house for dinner, and they said that they were having eggplant parmigiana? and you hated it, what would you do?’
Wow, where to start? Eggplant didn’t really grow in the Matanuska valley, it was more cabbage territory. And parmigi what? A ripple ran through the class. Despite daily earthquake drills, nuclear war drills and the Vietnam war on the near horizon, the question was pretty scary. The children in my seventh grade English class were tough and smart. Everyone except me had survived the earthquake. The end of my street had fallen into the Cook Inlet. At least one or two ate moose and bear regularly. Later, in biology, we dissected a lynx that a pupil brought in. But absolutely no-one had ever faced the terror of eggplant parmigiana.
This supper dish cannot be called eggplant/melanzane parmigiana, but both those items figure in the ingredients. There are beans where no beans ought to be, I have cut down on cheese, and there are no defined layers. But it tastes very like it and definitely fits into the general category of cucina povera. It is one of my favourite suppers and I only wish I could tell Mrs Stanfill that.
- Ingredients: one medium aubergine, half a courgette, one small red onion, 2 cloves of garlic, 3 or 4 fresh tomatoes, one red pepper, 1 can of tomatoes, 1 can of borlotti beans, olive oil, fresh oregano, basil, a few mild chillies (I used one fresh jalapeño and one dried New Mexico), black pepper, salt
- For the topping: A slice or 2 of good but dry bread, a handful or two of grated parmesan or similar cheese, parsley, oregano, olive oil, salt and pepper, scraps.
- Method: Put a tablespoonful or two of oil in a heavy pan and sauté slices of aubergine and courgette. When lightly browned on both sides, remove them and add the diced onion. You might need a little more oil but careful because the aubergine is now full of it. Sweat the onion and then add the crushed garlic and chopped herbs.
Meanwhile, quarter the pepper and chillies and grill them with the tomatoes until the skins bubble. Remove any char. You can peel them now if you want to. Slice them all up and add to the onions et al, stir it round a bit, and put in the tinned tomatoes along with the borlotti beans, drained and rinsed. A small glass of wine is helpful here too. Leave it to simmer away for about 20 minutes.
While it is cooking, chop up the bread, parsley, and cheese very finely together. Add in all the little scraps of garlic, herbs, chilli and peppers that remain around, stir in a few drops of oil and taste it to check the seasoning. Then stir half of this mixture into the beans and tomatoes. Carefully lay the slices of aubergine and courgette back on top. Or just mix them in if you want. Cover and bake in a medium oven for about half an hour. Then take out the dish and top with a few shavings of parmesan, followed by the rest of the bread mix. Cook for another 20-30 minutes but keep checking and cover/uncover as necessary – you don’t want the top to burn.
Serve with a smile. You were trained by the best.