Aubergine and courgette gratin

I’d call this melanzane alla parmigiana except it has courgettes in it as well as aubergines and there isn’t any basil in the sauce, but there is some celery and a bit of mild chopped red chilli. It is a classic Italian vegetable dish that you can eat hot or cold.

In the classic version, sliced of aubergines, fried in olive oil are layered with a thick and rich tomato and basil sauce, sliced mozzarella and parmesan cheese, topped off with more parmesan and breadcrumbs and baked in the oven.

In this version, I follow this basic pattern but also use some sliced courgettes too and my tomato sauce has the addition of finely chopped celery in the initial onion and garlic soffrito, along with some finely chopped fresh chopped red chilli.

First you have to fry the aubergine and courgette slices in olive oil. I flour the vegetables first, as this gives them a nice texture and helps them to colour up a bit. You need to be aware that this stage will take a lot of olive oil. Aubergines soak up oil like sponges, but this adds to the delicious richness of the finished dish. Fry the slices in batches in a large frying pan and, turning them once so that they colour slightly on both sides, but don’t over-brown them. You want them melting and soft. Set the aubergine and courgette slices aside on a plate as they cook.

Once you have fried the vegetables, you need to make the tomato sauce, unless you already have some left over from another dish.

In the same pan as you have fried the aubergines, gently fry a finely diced onion, two crushed cloves of garlic, a finely chopped stick of celery and the chilli (if you are using these) . If some oil has come out from the aubergine and courgette slices, which is highly likely,  you can use this, so that you keep all the flavour.

Add in a large tin of chopped tomatoes, salt and pepper, some dried oregano and a couple of tablespoons of tomato purée and stir well. Add half a tin of water, stir, and simmer the sauce until it is nice and thick. At this point, you can add in a handful of chopped or torn fresh basil leaves if you have any. I didn’t, so I didn’t use them this time.

To assemble the dish, thinly coat the bottom of an oven-proof dish with sauce and layer this with some of the aubergine and courgette slices, then some sliced mozzarella and parmesan, repeating this until you finish off with a layer of aubergines and courgettes. Top the thing with dried breadcrumbs (panko crumbs work well because they are quite coarse, or make your own) and more grated parmesan cheese and bake in the oven at 170C for about 35-45 minutes.

Once cooked, you can serve this hot, or also let it cool and serve it at room temperature. When you serve it, the melted mozzarella makes those long, gooey strings, which you can see in the picture. You want the dish to be quite firm rather than runny on the plate.

It doesn’t really need anything else, except maybe some crusty bread and a green salad to follow. You could serve it as a vegetable accompaniment to a roast chicken, but if I was going to do that, I’d personally make it without the mozzarella and top it with béchamel sauce instead.

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