STATISTICIANS will tell us that this time of year is the most depressing of all.

It’s trotted out in the newspapers and on TV and radio that one particular date, January 17, is the gloomiest day of the entire year.

And we, as one, reply and say “Yes, yes, we could have told you that already”.

It’s not rocket science, is it? The Christmas bills are itching to be paid, the year stretches out before us with its irritating knack of presenting all sorts of obstacles, problems and payments, and it’s probably raining from a featureless slate-grey sky.

No wonder some people get the blues.

Personally, I don’t mind this time of year all that much.

Traditionally, for the food industry, it’s always a relatively calm and quiet period, bookings-wise, and meant that I could get down to a bit of recipe testing, something that the busy periods of the year simply didn’t allow for.

For restaurants, it’s a good time to clear the decks and plan for the busier times ahead. Those spring menus won’t write themselves!

In culinary terms these flat, dark-grey days are also perfect for wheeling out the old favourites.

If you’re a bit on the glum side, nothing cheers as much as a favourite, trusted old supper dish.

Slow-braised, saucy dishes are in season, and what could be nicer than a lovely beef stew, a shepherd’s pie, or perhaps a rogan josh, prepared a day or so beforehand, drawn from a hot oven as the rain pelts down outside?

Even a simple jacket spud, salty crunchy skin opened to reveal a buttery, fluffy heart, perhaps with a dollop of crème fraîche and some snipped salad onions, is enough to raise the spirits after a bad work day. Macaroni and cheese? Perfect. Don’t forget the ketchup.

This week’s recipe is another little thoroughbred from the comfort food stable, and is a dish that is at the heart of Italian home cooking.

It’s particularly popular in the US, where Italian-American families see this as one of the cornerstones of their diet.

It’s mentioned frequently in films and on TV, and is nearly always the dish that people go to when they need cheering up or reminding of simpler, happier times.

It is the Eggplant Parmigian, or, as we know it, Aubergine Parmigiana.

Aubergines have an amazing flavour and texture, and laid in their creamy, unctuous slices amongst rich tomato sauce and oozing melted cheese, this dish hits the spot.

It requires nothing more than a crisp, bitter salad, and perhaps a slice or two of crunchy ciabatta-style bread to make a winning supper.

Aubergines once used to be incredibly bitter, hence some recipes still insist on salting the slices and allowing them to drain their juices, but these days one can generally cook aubergines straight from the shelf.

They caramelise beautifully and add a wonderful, earthy note to any dish they touch.

Just make sure you don’t skimp on the tomato sauce – it needs to be a labour of love for this simple yet effective comforter.

Buying good-quality tinned tomatoes at this time of year is a wise move – the “fresh” tomatoes of winter are pale, watery things grown in tents in the Canary Islands or Holland, and have absolutely nothing to add to any dish.

And of course, a good buffalo mozzarella is essential if you want the full effect of the dish to shine through.

Aprons on!

For the roast tomato sauce:

3 X 400g tinned tomatoes (the superb San Marzano variety if you can find them)

6 cloves garlic, minced

1 onion, finely diced

Pinch of unrefined golden caster sugar

Balsamic vinegar

Extra-virgin Olive Oil


For the Parmigiana:

3 large ripe aubergines

500g fresh buffalo mozzarella

8 tbsps fresh Reggiano Parmesan, grated

1 bag fresh basil, or a handful fresh oregano, chopped

A little plain flour

First, let’s get the sauce made. Heat a good slug of olive oil over a medium flame.

Add the onion and sauté until softened. Throw in the garlic and allow it to cook for a few minutes. Then add a splash of balsamic vinegar and allow this to reduce completely.

Tip in the tomatoes, bring to the boil, then simmer for an hour or two (the longer the better) to allow the flavours to develop and the tomatoes to break down completely.

Adding a tiny pinch of sugar helps to take away the sometimes metallic taste of the can.

Season if necessary. I find a few grinds of pepper and a tiny pinch of salt is all that is required. The sauce will keep (and indeed improve) for several days.

To prepare the aubergines, remove the stalk and cut them lengthways into slices about a centimetre thick.

Lightly dust the slices with a little flour (this helps to thicken the sauce around the slices and stops the dish becoming uncontrollably slippery) and fry until golden on both sides in plenty of olive oil.

Slice the mozzarella thinly, or grate it on a coarse grater.

To assemble the dish, spoon a good layer of the tomato sauce into a suitable ovenproof baking dish, and add a layer of aubergines, then a layer of mozzarella.

Sprinkle a little hand-torn basil or chopped oregano on top.

Repeat the layering, finishing with a layer of cheese and a thin layer of tomato sauce, then cover the dish with grated Parmesan.

Heat the oven to 180°C / Gas 4. Bake the Parmigiana until the top is golden and sizzling.

Serve hot, with a nice crispy bitter-leaved salad and perhaps some suitably crunchy bread.