For those who wonder whether consumer pressure ever works, consider this.
When I first began writing, several years ago, about the unseen contribution made by supermarkets to the problem of food waste there was already a growing concern amongst various pressure and consumer groups over the issue.
At the time, supermarkets were estimated to be responsible for around a third of all food waste in the UK, mainly due to the very strict cosmetic standards they were applying to their suppliers. These specified the size, shape or colour requirements for particular fruits and vegetables.
As a consequence, farmers were deliberately growing more food than they were contractually obliged to supply because they had to anticipate that a proportion would be rejected.
In other words, a huge proportion of food waste occurred before the food ever reached supermarket shelves.
On the other side of the equation, the average family was throwing out £700 of food each year, often because of confusion over “use by” and “sell by” dates, even when the food itself was still perfectly edible.
What was needed, I and others before me had argued, was a step change in the attitudes of both the supermarkets (by, for example, relaxing some of their ridiculously stringent requirements), and consumers (who needed to be less “picky” and accept that good food need not – indeed should not – look perfect).
Well, there may still be a long way to go but things have certainly moved on.
Tesco’s Perfectly Imperfect range has followed on the heels of Asda’s Wonky Veg and Morrison’s Wonky ranges. Waitrose have successfully sold storm damaged tomatoes and other weather-blemished fruit and vegetables. Sainsburys has a campaign to encourage us to buy and use ripe and blemished bananas.
What’s more, shoppers have readily taken to this “imperfect produce”, which has been flying off the shelves (no doubt helped by the fact that it sells at lower prices than its “perfect” counterparts).
More recently, Tesco has announced it is removing “best before” labels from many of its fresh produce lines, to encourage shoppers to use their senses (especially the most important one – common sense) when choosing produce from the shelves.
It’s a long road, but at least more of the supermarkets, and we customers, now seem to be on it.
On to the recipe.
This is one of my favourite vegetarian comfort food dishes, my version of an Italian classic called Melanzane alla Parmigiano. Although the aubergine is the star of this dish, at its heart is that wonderful alchemy that comes from the combination of tomatoes, mozzarella and basil.
Serve accompanied by a simple, crisp salad.
aubergine, tomato and Parmesan bake
2 aubergines, cut lengthways into ½ cm slices
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
400 g can organic chopped tomatoes
1 onion, finely chopped
2 buffalo mozzarella, thinly sliced
2 tbsp tomato purée
½ tsp sea salt
100 g vegetarian Parmesan, finely grated
15 g fresh basil leaves, roughly chopped
50 g breadcrumbs
½ tsp dried oregano
1/2 tsp dried basil
6 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1. Combine 50 g of the Parmesan with the breadcrumbs and 2 tablespoons of the olive oil. Mix thoroughly to combine then set to one side.
2. Preheat the oven to 170°C. Pour 2 tablespoons of olive oil into a suitable pan and place over a medium heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring until soft and translucent. Add garlic and cook, stirring for a further 2 minutes, making sure that the garlic does not burn. Add the chopped tomatoes, tomato purée, dried oregano, dried basil and sea salt to the pan. Add 100 ml fresh water. Stir to combine and bring to a simmer. Reduce the heat and cook for a further 5 to 6 minutes, stirring from time to time. Remove from the heat and set to one side.
3. Place a griddle pan over a high heat. Brush the aubergine slices on both sides with olive oil. Once the pan’s heart place the sliced aubergine in the pan (you will need to do this into a 3 batches) and cook until the aubergine has softened and both sides have dark chargrilled bars across them. Drain on kitchen paper.
4. Lightly oil an oven proof dish and put a layer of aubergine slices in the bottom. Spoon over some of the tomato and oregano source. Sprinkle with some of the chopped basil leaves, then add a layer of mozzarella and sprinkle this with some of the Parmesan. Repeat this process until you have used up all of the ingredients. Finally, distribute the Parmesan and breadcrumbs mixture across the top.
5. Place the oven dish in the preheated oven and bake for 30 minutes, or until golden and sizzling.