It’s also one with some secrets buried inside. It’s up to you whether you want to let people in on the fact that the bechamel is bolstered by a tin of blitzed cannellini beans and an egg. They’ll probably never know they’re there but you’ll appreciate the extra protein.
The second is the use of a panini press to toast your aubergine slices. It saves on oil from frying (aubergines can be the thirstiest of nightshades) and thanks to the heat coming from both sides it will cook them in double time. There’s a little bit of hands-on work in layering it all together, but the end result is something that’s hearty, bubbling and very hard to just have one portion of.
Serves 4 (or 6 with a big green salad, or as a side for some roast lamb, steak or fish)
3 large aubergines
3 tbsp olive oil
80g Parmesan, shaved
A large handful of fresh basil leaves, to serve
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
For the tomato sauce:
1 tbsp olive oil
1 onion, peeled and diced
2 garlic cloves, peeled and thinly sliced
2 x 400g tins of chopped tomatoes
1 tbsp dried oregano
A pinch of dried chilli flakes (optional)
For the bechamel:
50g chickpea (besan or gram) flour or plain wheat flour
1 x 400g tin of cannellini beans or chickpeas rinsed and pureed (to help create a smoother puree you can add 2 tbsp milk or water)
1 egg, lightly beaten
A lasagne dish, 30 cm long, greased
1. Lop the top off the aubergines. Cut them lengthways into slices 1.5 cm thick and brush them with the olive oil.
2. Use a panini press or a griddle pan to ‘toast’ the aubergine slices in batches, until the outsides are golden brown and the insides are pliable.
3. Meanwhile, to make the tomato sauce, heat the olive oil in a frying pan over medium heat and saute the onion and garlic for 5–7 minutes until they have softened, taking care not to scorch the garlic. Add the tinned tomatoes, oregano and dried chilli and bring it to a simmer. You want the sauce to cook until it is thick and chunky. Taste it: if it is a little acrid, add a teaspoon of sugar. Now is also the time to add salt to taste.
4. Preheat the oven to 180˚C/350˚F/Gas 4. While the tomato sauce is reducing, take a separate saucepan and make the bechamel. Melt the butter over medium heat, then add the flour and stir it to create a paste. Cook the paste for 2 minutes, or until it has turned a light brown. Gradually pour in the milk, whisking it with a balloon whisk until it thickens to a nice, lump-free white sauce like bechamel. Stir in the pureed beans, then remove from the heat and stir through the egg and ½ teaspoon pepper.
5. Lay one-third of the grilled aubergines across the base of the prepared lasagne dish, top to tail to help fill all the corners. It can be quite rustic. Cover them with half the tomato sauce and one-third of the Parmesan and mozzarella. Layer another third of the aubergines, then cover them with the remaining tomato sauce and another third of the cheeses. Use the remaining aubergines to form a final layer.
6. Pour the bechamel evenly over the top, making sure to leave a few millimetres clear at the top of the dish as the sauce will rise a little with baking. Sprinkle with the remaining cheeses.
7. Bake the ‘parm’ in the preheated oven for 45 minutes, or until the top is golden and bubbling.
8. Serve strewn with basil leaves.
Photography by Chris Chen