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I was a relative latecomer to pizza, being one of those children who for no apparent reason decide to undergo fairly brutal dietary self-restriction (range rather than quantity). In my case, said diet consisted of (some) dairy products, home-made bread, some fruit, most sweet things (on the rare occasions I was allowed them), cottage cheese and pancakes. Special mention must also be given to the delicacy that is Spaghetti Hoops, about which my sister was kind enough to remind me after reading the first version of this story in which they were inexplicably omitted. Tinned pasta or no, it all started very early on when I twigged that ‘lamb’ was in fact dead lambs. Nothing was ever quite the same again. Suffice to say, there was some consternation over the years, mainly about the impact all this would have on my health. The fact that by the age of 12 I was already the height of an average UK adult man (I wasn’t a boy, despite looking like one) seemed to have very little effect on the general assumption that such a diet would cause me to be undernourished. Such was the medical profession’s concern for my supposed ill-health that I was despatched to the child shrink to be analysed. He turned out to have a crystal ball – at least, I assume he must have had as he seemed quite convinced of the root cause of the aforementioned restricted (read ‘deeply tedious’) diet before I’d even managed to utter a word. In fact, given his pronouncement, I might as well have not turned up at all as he was completely convinced of his diagnosis (all about controlling my mother, natch) and no protestations to the contrary could persuade him otherwise.

Anyway, as anyone who either has, or has been, a child who does or did this will know, these things have a habit of coming out in the wash. In my case, it was an uncontrollable craving for spinach, which ambushed me for no apparent reason, never having had it before in living memory (neither spinach nor the craving). From this, other things followed, including (eventually) pizza. Mum and I went out to the newly opened Pizza Express in Cambridge (reluctanctly in my case), which had taken up residence – initially under the Kettners brand – in the old Pitt Club building in Jesus Lane. Incidentally this at one point housed the rather exotically named ‘Xanadu’. I think my sister had cocktails there on her 16th birthday. Anyway, good old Pizza Express remains there to this day, though in my opinion with a somewhat diminished ambience, due to the removal of the lobby champagne bar to make room for more tables. Anyway, it was in these auspicious surroundings that I had my very first Quattro Formaggi pizza. I even remember that it was £4.40 (this was millions of years ago) and that it was a perfect cross-section of heaven.

Now, I must at this point take you on a small diversion. As my lovely friend Keely-from-Leeds will attest, there was something truly gorgeous about the particular combination of cheeses on this first iteration of Quattro Formaggi. I’m not 100% sure what they were, though I’m guessing at mozzarella, edam, emmental and parmesan. I believe that this original combination is still in use in Dubai. However, some years after the First One, the powers that be decided (in their infinite wisdom) to change the formula for everywhere except Dubai to all-Italian cheeses. At this point the magic was, in my opinion, lost. Don’t get me wrong: I see the logic, and they’re perfectly nice, but just not the same.

So, back to the story. A whole new world of food flavours had been opened up in one fell swoop! Pizza Express pizzas became a grand passion and we would have lived happily ever after had I not developed a dicey relationship with wheat. Oh, I cannot tell you the dismay! It was a truly shocking state of affairs though one that in hindsight I’m surprised didn’t come around much earlier. This left me with the serious business of finding an alternative to the beloved pizzas. I think it could have been my godmother who suggested I try Melanzane Parmigiana (see? we got there in the end) as it combines essentially the same flavours as you find on pizza, but with none of the bread. I tried this in Pizza Express (in those days, many things including restaurant choices were still pretty limited) and pronounced it a success.

To date, I have sampled Melanzane in restaurants all over the UK and beyond in search of the perfect recipe. Call me biased, but I reckon I’ve got it sorted. This recipe is dedicated to Katie as I cooked it for her and Fiona when on the Northumberland trip and she’s been harassing me ever since. It’s particularly pleasing as in a way there is the potential for many recipes in one, due to the numerous uses for the tomato sauce that you need to make for it. Furthermore, this dish is if anything better the next day so you can easily make it in advance and re-heat. Pictures will follow as soon as I have the time to make it.

Preparation

  • Preheat the oven to about 180C
  • That’s it

Ingredients (tomato sauce)

  • 1 tin chopped Italian tomatoes
  • 1 jar passata
  • About 50ml olive oil (you can use chili oil or a mixture of the two for an extra kick
  • A splash of red wine vinegar
  • A teaspoon or two of dark brown sugar
  • Sea salt
  • Black pepper
  • Dried mixed Italian herbs

Ingredients (main dish)

  • A batch of tomato sauce, as above
  • 2-3 aubergines
  • 2-3 balls of mozzarella
  • Shavings of fresh parmesan
  • Olive oil

Method (tomato sauce)

  1. Place the tomatoes, passata and olive oil in a large pan
  2. Stirring constantly, heat through until the oil starts to incorporate
  3. Season with salt and pepper, tasting frequently until you are happy
  4. Reduce the heat right down and cover the pan, but allowing the steam to escape.
  5. Cook slowly, so the mixture thickens and reduces, stirring now and again to prevent sticking
  6. Add the vinegar and sugar, a little at a time. You are looking for a flavour balance here; not too acidic, not too sweet. You’ll be amazed at the effect of these ingredients
  7. Add the herbs, perhaps half a teaspoonful
  8. Continue to cook until you have a thick, rich sauce that’s full of depth and flavour
  9. Remove from the heat.
  10. You can make this in advance, or separately, or as part of the main recipe. The beauty of this sauce is that it has many uses and can be frozen ahead of time too.

Method (main dish)

  1. Remove the tops of the aubergines and slice them longways into pieces around 4-5ml in thickness
  2. Lay the slices out on baking trays and brush both sides with olive oil.
  3. Place in the oven and bake until slightly browned
  4. Take a medium sized square or oblong oven-proof dish. Put a thin layer of sauce over the bottom
  5. Cover the bottom layer with aubergine slices, then add more sauce and slices of mozzarella
  6. Cover with another layer of aubergine, and repeat with more sauce and mozzarella
  7. Add a final layer of aubergine, then top with sauce, mozzarella slices and generous quantities of shaved parmesan.
  8. Place the dish in the oven and bake for about half an hour. This is really about melding all the ingredients together as the sauce and the aubergines are already cooked. When it’s ready, the top will bubbling and brown and a wonderful smell will fill your kitchen
  9. Remove from the oven, leave to stand for a few minutes and when you’re ready to serve, either immediately or later when reheated, decorate with a sprig of basil!
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