I don't know about you, but when I fixate on a dish, nothing – and I mean nothing (not even a fridge packed with perfectly fresh but irrelevant ingredients) – is going to stop me from making it. I may have everything I need to make a very nice spaghetti/stir-fry/veggie bake for supper, but if I start fantasising about, say, Parmigiana, I will go to the supermarket, buy the ingredients, and by God I'll make my Parmigiana. Sure I feel guilty, but I appease the the Thrift Gods by promising to make some holy mess of a dish with everything else in the fridge the next day. I might even throw in the three-year-old cocktail gherkins that have been taunting me from the bottom shelf for the last six months (but that's a blog post for another time).
What got my Parmigiana craving going was a recipe in a book my mother bought at a second-hand store, and passed on to me when I left home. The book's author is Sophia Loren. It is titled 'Eat with Me' and was published in 1971. Here's a picture of the Italian version – the sleeve of my English one was lost many moons ago (it probably fell behind the fridge, a place I refer to as the cook-book-sleeve-cemetery. RIP).
There is a section titled ‘Eggs and Vegetables’, in which I found the Parmigiana recipe. In the forward, she says: ‘There are some vegetable dishes, ways of doing aubergines, pimientos, and so on, that sometimes fill me with an enthusiasm that I am unable to work up over the main course.’ I couldn't agree more.
She doesn't give very clear ingredient quantities (e.g. 'a spoonful' – does this mean tablespoon, ladle or teaspoon?), but I love the way her writing makes me feel as though she's giving me the recipe over the phone. And the photos are too gorgeous. Don't ask about the salad servers – it was the seventies, after all!
I have another book, even older, that doesn’t inspire obsession over a particular dish so much as an obsession with how extraordinary it would be to jump back to Kenya, circa 1930. You see, the Guinea Pig’s mother gave me a copy of ‘The Kenya Settler’s Cookery Book and Household Guide’, written by the Church of Scotland Women’s Guild. Need I say more? The pages are faded brown and have that aged, dusty smell of old books; it’s falling apart at the seems – and I love it. Not for the recipes, but for the power it has to evoke a time and place that is so strange to me. It’s filled with ads: ‘After every meal, smoke Pall Mall’; ‘You cannot do better than to obtain your ingredients for the delectable dishes contained in this book from Foster & Blowers’; ‘For perfection and Ivanhoe stoves, use Laurel Kerosene’. It's a hoot.
There’s a section titled ‘Invalid Cookery’, the introduction helpfully pointing out that, when it comes to sick people, ‘every effort should be made to see that meals are tempting’ and that food should be ‘nourishing’ and ‘easy of digestion’. The first recipe thereafter is for a ghastly concoction called ‘albumen water’, which is basically raw egg whites ‘cut all ways for a minute’ with two knives, then added to a little water and a little salt OR lemon juice. Disgusting. They should have added ‘Make sure to keep an empty bucket within arm’s reach.’ Though it might have been effective – I imagine many a speedy recovery occurred once the dreaded albumen water was discovered to be a 'perk' of convalescence.
But let's get back to Sophia, in her own words...
This is a truly magnificent dish, and at the same time an unfathomable mystery to me. Why Parmigiana if this is a dish that is not only as Neapolitan as San Gennaro, but one of the proudest monuments of Naples cuisine? Historical injustice? Involuntary error? Or a conspiracy? In any case here is what it is made of:
Clean and slice some large aubergines, say 2 pounds for 6 people. Each slice should be a little less than a quarter inch thick. Place slices on a large plate, cover with course salt, then cover with another plate and weigh it down with something heavy, so that the slices extrude their bitter juices. After a couple of hours, wash and dry the slices and squeeze them a little, very gently, to get them as dry as possible. Then fry them in plenty of hot olive oil.
Make a sauce with tomatoes (say, under 2 pounds, or slightly less than the weight of the aubergine), peel chop and sieve them; put them in the pan with a pinch of salt and a few basil leaves, but without oil; you only have to wait for a little of the tomato juice to reduce before the sauce starts to thicken. At this point, you put a few spoonfuls of the sauce into an oiled baking dish, then a layer of fried aubergine, then sprinkle with grated Parmesan, then put down a layer of thinly sliced Mozzarella with a few leaves of basil, and a spoonful of beaten egg. Begin all over again with the sauce, the aubergine, the Parmesan, mozzarella, egg, and back to home base, so that you end up with at least three layers of everything. Bake uncovered in a hot oven (425F) for 40 to 50 minutes.
Variations on this dish, which is revered throughout the length and breadth of Italy, included one with the aubergine dipped in egg and flour before frying, so that the taste is more delicate. It can also be made with half aubergine and half courgette, which is more delicate still.