Antonio Carluccio's eggplant parmigiana changed me

Smokiness: Bryan Martin's eggplant parmigiana.
Smokiness: Bryan Martin's eggplant parmigiana. Photo: David Reist

One thing you hope for as the years roll on is, obviously, continuing health or, indeed, some sort of miraculous bodily regeneration. One that reverts all your ageing cells back to when you were on top of your game – which for most was in the  27th year, late spring, all care, warm but no responsibility, yet.

Seeing as that isn't likely, thank you series of governments that have continually cut science and medical research funding. We could all be eternally mid to late 20s if it wasn't for your short-sightedness. Sure it would be a strange world but this would solve at least one of your fiscal issues, no one would ever retire, which is the plan right?

With this looking more and more desirable as you get older, it's also unlikely, so what you wish for is to look wizened, content, with an inner glow that younger people can note and strive for.

Antonio Carlucci's dish was a simple eggplant parmigiana based on thin sliced eggplant, various cheese and a simple ...
Antonio Carlucci's dish was a simple eggplant parmigiana based on thin sliced eggplant, various cheese and a simple tomato and basil sauce. Photo: David Reist

The face of Antonio Carluccio is that for me. Like it's been  chiselled out of the finest porcelain, alabaster or marble.

Years from now futuristic people, all dressed in skivvies, will marvel who this great man was and why was he so gosh darn content.

There's humour in this face, plus no doubt some sadness, but ultimately a satisfied look of someone who has spent his life around great food, wine and people. He was out there as a chef extraordinaire way before the plethora of celebrity chefs emerged from kitchens like so many ichthyostegi from the primordial mud of the Devonian era.

Carluccio is in town at the moment as the poster boy for the truffle festive and food month. I met him years ago, around the time I too was 27. He was looking at my finger which I'd nearly sliced off, impressed no doubt why I got so far through it. This was my first foray into learned cooking as I had this urge to make a career out of it and this was a time way before MasterChef, My Kitchen Rules or indeed anything besides Ian Parmenter and Gabriel Gate on television.

Who would have thought how our lives would be dominated by culinary reality television to the point where major food chains make their growers pay a supplement to someone like Jamie Oliver to have his presence vaguely plastered throughout the place. So when Carluccio came to town for a masterclass on Italian food, I signed up early and did my best at severing my thumb.

The dish he'd just showed us was a simple eggplant parmigiana based on thinly sliced eggplant, various cheeses and a simple tomato and basil sauce.


About that same time in Melbourne a well-known little restaurant in the eastern suburbs, Manfred's, used to do this cracking version of this dish. Super fine layers of eggplant and a concentrated sauce with this intriguing smokey flavour.

I know eggplants aren't exactly in their season but they seem to hang around all year. I found some with Oliver's face plastered all over them but they did look pretty good so this and being in my reminiscing mood from half a lifetime ago, I thought I'd recreate a composite parmigiana.

Interestingly, I've just found a way of slicing eggplant thinly that is much safer than the way that confounded and disfigured me so many years ago.

I passed an Aldi store poster, you know them, they advertise stuff that isn't in the store or was but always seems to be sold out.

It's a lure, once you are in store they know very well that it is impossible to walk out without buying something you don't need but in this trance-like state will purchase. Only when you get home, and unpack the bench vice, do you realise that (a) you haven't a bench to bolt it to and (b), have no idea what you need a bench vice for anyway.

I went in seeing a $120 sous vide chamber, knowing full well that nothing like this will exist anymore but happy to gamble on coming out with something vaguely useful.

What I ended up with, besides the bench vice and a paper shredder, don't ask, was a meat slicer, much like the things they use in the deli, only a third the size and speed. I turned it on expecting this whir of the super sharp disc but was in someway surprised that it was slower and steady.

Turns out it's not that good at turning ham into thinly sliced prosciutto but great at slicing eggplant into 5mm slices which is exactly how thin you want them.

I've added an interesting component to the classic by grilling one eggplant until it is super charry and using this in the layering to give that smokiness that works so well with eggplant.

Eggplant parmigiana

5 medium eggplant
2 tins Italian tomatoes, crushed up
3 cloves garlic, peeled
Handful basil leaves
olive oil
250g ball fresh mozzarella, sliced thin
¼ cup freshly grated Parmesan
ground black peppercorns and extra basil

Slice four of the eggplants into 5mm slices down the length, liberally salt and leave for 20 minutes to pickle a little, rinse and pat dry. Keep each eggplant in a separate pile arranged roughly large to small. In a large pan, heat olive oil to hot and quickly fry these slices, don't crowd the pan and keep using fresh oil. As they cook, drain off excess oil.

For the extra eggplant cook whole over a flame if you have one until it is totally charred, let it cool a bit and scrape out the smokey flesh. This can be achieved by cooking on a BBQ or under an oven grill.

In a pot heat some more oil and fry garlic until crisp, remove and discard garlic and add basil and crushed tomatoes. These will sizzle and splatter but settle down eventually. Cook over a low heat until you have a thick sauce. Season with pepper.

To assemble, place one slice of eggplant on an oily oven tray, spoon over a little tomato sauce and some torn basil then another eggplant slice smeared with smoky eggplant purée. Another slice and cover with two slices of mozzarella, plus a sprinkle of Parmesan. Repeat this twice more for each stack. You should have four in total.

Pour extra tomato sauce on the top of each and finish with more cheese and bake at 180C for 20 minutes until the cheese melts. Serve with a green salad and nice bottle of something Italian.