If there’s one thing that invariably causes a stir when it arrives to the table, it’s a bubbling casserole dish with a layer of crispy bits and melted cheese on top. You know the kind I’m talking about. Mouths start to water, deep nasal inhalations take place and there is a buzz in the air. Rest assure a good meal is about to come.
I’ve made variations of this over the years but this is one is a little bit unusual. The rich bechamel sauce is replaced by a layer of my basil chermoula pesto folded through creamy ricotta cheese. There’s a suggestion of spice and a whole whack of of summer- basil, tomatoes, aubergines & courgettes. It will undoubtedly make you reflect on how fast summer has gone and how fast time seems to go as you get older. Sorry about that, it’s a nasty and rarely avoidable side effect- made good by the little jive your taste buds are doing on your tongue.
Anyway, don’t let that worry you- you have bubbling tomatoes and cheese to consume and that ought to leave you feeling rather smug. This is essentially a lasagna without the sheets of lasagna- slices of grilled aubergine & courgette take their place. It’s layered up with homemade tomato sauce, ricotta mixed with basil chermoula pesto with a final topping of goats cheese, crispy breadcrumbs and parmesan cheese. Hungry? I’m really wishing I still had some leftovers in my fridge.
Now, the nitty gritty. Firstly, this is not a quick dish to make. I know, I know, we all want dinner on the table in twenty minutes- trust me I want it in ten. That is why I have posted this on a Friday- you now have the whole weekend to fit it into your schedule. I’m not talking hours and hours and certainly it’s not difficult but it will take you the best part of two hours from start to finish. So grab a glass of wine, put on some crazy tunes and try not to think to much about the fact that this is the last weekend of summer.
Another note, I like to use cricket ball courgettes- the round ones people often stuff. Mostly, just because they are easier to slice and are more similar in size to the aubergine. You can by all means use normal ones (in which case try and get ones thicker round the middle) and then slice both vegetable lenghtways rather than through the middle. When choosing a cricket ball squash for this you want to stay away from the large ones, which tend to have quite mealy middles- look for the young smaller ones. If you do find yourself with a mealy small one, then feel free to curse me, have a tantrum and then just carefully remove the mealy middles before getting on the task at hand.
Now that you’ve gone to the trouble of making this darn thing you’re going to be rather cross with me when I tell you that now you need to wait a whole ten minutes before diving in. It’s going to be a real bore, let me tell you- but it really helps the vegetables to settle and reabsorb some of their lost juices. Don’t let it stop you from putting it on the table all bubbly- just start with a small salad and let your guests ooooh and aaaahhh in anticipation. You’ll ruin their joy if you cut into a watery mess. Patience, my friends- if you acquire some I’d love to know how.
And finally, no doubt you will find it oozing its savoury juices over the sides of the pan so make sure you place it on a baking tray in the oven. Melted bubbly cheese heading for an eager mouth is one thing- on the oven floor, is quite another.
Aubergine & courgette (zucchini) bake with basil chermoula
If you don’t want to use the ricotta cheese you can sprinkle each layer with goats cheese and drizzle with chermoula- which is just as delicious. This is great cold the next day too. The tomato sauce is from Jamie Oliver’s Italy book.
Serves 4 generously, 6 lightly
Diet Facts: Vegetarian. Gluten free if you use gluten- free bread.
For the tomato sauce
2 Tbsp olive oil
1 medium-sized onion, fairly finely chopped
2 large garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1 tsp dried oregano
2 x 400g tins good quality diced tomatoes ( fresh are even better but you will have to peel the tomatoes and de-seed 2lbs 3 oz of them)
1 tsp red wine vinegar
For the Chermoula (this makes double what you’ll need- but you’ll want to use it for other things)
2 large bunches basil, leaves picked (about 150g picked weight or 14 lightly packed cups)
1 Tbsp ground cumin
2 tsp ground coriander
1/4-1/2 tsp cayenne pepper (depending on your heat preferences)
2 peeled garlic cloves
zest & juice of 1 lemon (about 2 tsp zest and 2 Tbsp juice)
100ml/over flowing 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/2 tsp kosher salt
450g/1 lbs whole milk ricotta cheese (or low fat)
for the rest
1 large Aubergine (about 650-700g)
2 cricket ball courgettes (medium to small size- about 500g/ over 1lb 2 oz weight)
good olive oil
30g/ 1 oz finely grated parmesan
1 slice bread (any kind will do) blitzed into breadcrumbs
100g/ 40z soft goats cheese, broken into chunks (or fresh mozzarella)
1/ I like to start by making he tomato sauce. First heat the oil over a medium heat in a large straight sided pan or frying pan. Add the chopped onion, sliced garlic and oregano and cook, stirring occasionally for 10 minutes. You want the onion to be soft and the garlic to be beginning to brown.
2/ Add the tomatoes to the pan and let simmer, uncovered for about 20 mintues until thickened. Taste and if you think it needs it add the teaspoon of vinegar and salt and pepper to taste.
3/ Now for the basil chermoula: rinse the basil in a colander to remove any grit. Place the basil and everything but the oil ithe bowl of a large food processor and blitz until smooth. Gradually add the oil and blitz until fairly smooth. Stir 200ml/ generous 3/4 cup of the chermoula through the ricotta until combined. Set aside.
4/ Now for the veg. Slice the ends off the zucchini and then slice rounds about 3/4 cm/ 1/3 inch thick. Do the same for the aubergine.
5/ Now you can do the next part a couple of ways. You can either heat a grill/griddle pan really hot and brush the slices with oil (or spray with cooking spray) and grill/griddle on each side OR you can take the easier route and heat the grill/broiler on high and lay the slices out on silpat on a baking tray. Brush with oil and place under the grill/broiler until golden, turn over, brush again and repeat. They take about 2 minutes per side but keep an eye on them. Season wtih sea salt. Heat the oven to 190C/375F/Gas 5
6/ F0r the topping. In a small bowl mix together the parmesan and bread with 1 tsp olive oil.
Exhausted yet? The fun is just getting started.
7/ For the assembling it’s just going to be layers. Everything should be divided into 3. Take a 25 x 12 cm /10 x 6 inch casserole dish (or roughly in that region) put a thin layer of the tomatoes on the bottom of the dish and a small sprinkling (about 1 Tbsp) of the parmesan/bread mixture.
Now, top this with a generous layering of zucchini and aubergine, (overlapping is great!).
Top this with a nice thin layer of the ricotta/chermoula mixture.
Top with a layer of tomato sauce, then zucchini/aubergine again, ricotta/chermoula again, tomato sauce, zucchini/aubergine,
Then top with the remaining tomato sauce, the slices of goats cheese or mozzarella and sprinkle with the remaining parmesan/bread. You should have 1/3 of your ricotta mixture left for serving.
Put into the oven for 30 minutes until nice and bubbly. You may want to finish it off under the grill/broiler to get the cheese nice and golden. Let sit for at least 10 minutes if not 15 before cutting in to serve. Serve with a simple green salad and top with a spoonful of ricotta mixture.
Other end of summer dishes you may fancy: