grilled lemon-and-garlic marinated eggplants

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melt in the mouth, grilled eggplants marinated in garlic, lemon juice and olive oil

I think nobody who doesn’t know me already is ever going to find this recipe. There’s 1 million and 970 thousand hits for “grilled eggplants” on Google. With more than 2 million people out there who can grill eggplants this is probably going to be slightly redundant.

The thing is, I did not grow up with grilled eggplants. I have only learned how to make them in relatively recent times.

My mum – as every good Sicilian – only used fried eggplants. She put those juicy slabs on pasta and parmigiana , smothered in thick  tomato sauce and sprinkles of fragrant basil. Heavenly, but with the inconvenient characteristic of migrating directly to the hips to accentuate unwanted rotundity.

On the other hand, the world is full of badly grilled eggplants. Have you ever returned from the BBQ/grill with those stripey bitter shoe-soles trying to decide if they were suitable for human consumption?

Did you swear you’ll never make them again?

Try this. It’s foolproof, smoke-free :) and tastes lovely and light.

Recipe

  • 1 eggplant / aubergine
  • 1 garlic clove, sliced
  • juice of 1/4 lemon
  • 2 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

First of all, please make sure to use plump, fresh eggplants in season. Winter ghosts will not do.

As for cooking, best results are obviously obtained with a charcoal/wood BBQ, but a stove-top cast iron grill is a valid alternative and much faster.

While your cooking implement is heating up, peel and cut eggplants crosswise into 3-4 mm (1/10 inch) thick slices. Transfer in a plate making no more than two layers. Place the olive oil, garlic and lemon juice in shallow bowl to make a marinade. Add some chopped basil or parsley if you like.

Here comes the first surprise. Pop them in the microwave for 1-2 min until they just start getting moist and tender.

And the second surprise. Grill the slices without oiling them, you’ll have no smoke.

As soon as the slices are cooked through and slightly charred transfer them in the marinade and covered so they will infuse.

If you have time, prepare them a couple of hours in advance and serve at room temperature . You can also serve them sooner but let them cool off a little. Season with salt just before serving.

Serves 2-3 as a side dish.

bandiera

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"bandiera", a fragrant stir fry of Italian summer vegetables

This is my mum’s version of the Provençal ratatouille. A dish like this one – basically a stew of summer vegetables – must exist all around the Mediterranean.  Because of its vibrant colors, in Umbria it’s called “bandiera” meaning “flag” . In Basilicata it’s known as ciambotta or cianfotta. It’s a close relative of the Sicilian caponata, another miracle of Southern peasant cooking.

I have with the bandiera the same love-hate relations that others have for custard. If you get the wrong version is awful. Particularly when the veggies have been cooked in tomato sauce until mushy and unrecognizable. My family’s recipe is crisp and fragrant. The trick is to cook vegetables separately and quickly combine them with just a hint of tomato and onion. Keep it in the refrigerator for a couple of days, it will be slightly softer and mellower, perfect picnic food.

Recipe

  • 1 eggplant, cut into 1-inch pieces
  • 1 red or yellow bell pepper, cut into 3/4-inch strips
  • 1 medium zucchini, halved lengthwise and cut into 1/4-inch-thick slices
  • 2 medium boiling potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/4-inch-thick slices
  • 1 medium onion, sliced
  • 2 plum tomatoes peeled and cubed
  • a few tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Chop all ingredients before starting to cook. Prepare a bowl where to keep the cooked vegetables. Take a large non-stick pan preferably a wok, heat one tablespoon olive oil and shallow fry the potatoes until crispy. Transfer in the bowl.

Increase the heat to medium-high, add one additional tablespoon olive oil and stir fry  the eggplants until golden and tender. Transfer in the bowl with the potatoes. Repeat separately for the zucchini and peppers.

Lower the heat, add a little more olive oil if necessary and soften the onions until translucent. Increase the heat to maximum, add all the cooked vegetables and the tomatoes and stir fry quickly until the tomatoes are absorbed by the vegetables. Season and transfer back into the bowl. Serve at room temperature or cold, better if the next day.

The dish is fantastic prepared like this but it’s work intensive. If I am pressed for time, I cook the potatoes and onions and then I stir fry them with a bag of mixed grilled vegetables and a two tablespoons of tinned tomatoes. Of course this is also a delicious way to use left over grilled vegetables from your last BBQ.

Serves 4-6

Eggplant Parmigiana

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glorious eggplants, a taste of summer

EGGPLANT PARMIGIANA.

I’m biting my nails here because I have so many things to tell you and if I don’t make a selection,  I’ll probably never get to the recipe.

First of all the name. Parmigiana literally means “from Parma”. However, this  recipe has been known as a tradition in Naples and Sicily since the early XIX century. Food historians have not come up with a conclusive explanation of why an iconic Southern dish has a Northern name. Some say that preparing vegetables alla parmigiana – i.e. in the way of Parma – refers to the use of layers interspersed with cheese and baked.

In origin, the eggplant parmigiana must not have not included Parmesan cheese which is now a standard ingredient. The Southerners used pecorino, provolone, caciocavallo, or mozzarella.

Who knows, may be the people from Parma invented the method and the Southerners adapted it to local ingredients.

I have inscribed this dish in the list of the mistreated foods of Italy. Too often I see impossibly fat recipes oozing cheap cheese, heavy bread-crumb coating and drowning in industrial amounts of oil. A gastroenterologist nightmare.

On the other hand I lost count of absurd adaptations to make it “light”. I admit it, it’s not a low-cal dish but if one wants dessert one has to have some sugar, right? So what’s the sense to use all sorts of alternatives which will taste and look like something else?

The eggplant parmigiana is a dish of fried eggplants baked with a little cheese and tomato sauce.  That’s it, simple, vegetarian and fantastic if properly prepared.

Recipe

  • 2 large eggplants
  • 300 gr / 8  oz fresh mozzarella sliced
  • 1 400 gr / 12 oz  tin peeled or diced San Marzano tomatoes
  • 1 medium onion,  diced
  • 4 tablespoons grated Parmesan
  • 10-12 fresh basil leaves

Eggplants:

Prepare and fry and  eggplants as explained here . Place in a colander for a few hours or possibly overnight to get read of excess oil. Grilled eggplants are often too dry, but if you don’t want to fry blanch them before grilling to keep them moist. Here is my recipe.

Sauce:

Heat 1 tablespoon EVO oil in a pan, add the onion, cover  and saute over low heat until translucent. Stir in the tinned tomato and a sprig of basil, cover again and cook for approx. 10 min. Season lightly with salt and black pepper.

Preheat oven at 180 °C / 350 °F.

Build up the parmigiana: spread two tablespoons of the sauce on  the bottom of a ovenproof pan. Cover with a single  layer of eggplant slices. Top with mozzarella, 2-3  basil leaves, 1 tablespoons of Parmesan and 2-3 tablespoons of sauce. Continue using all ingredients and finish with a layer of eggplant, sauce and Parmesan. Bake for 30 min until golden and bubbly.  You must allow it to cool off for at least 10 min before serving but it’s best at room temperature. In the summer we have it as a main vegetarian meal with crusty bread to mop up the gorgeous juices.

pasta al forno alla siciliana

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baked Sicilian-style pasta

SICILIAN PASTA TIMBALE or PASTA INCASCIATA. When it gets as cold as it is now here, I need to dream of the sun. Or of sunny food.

This recipe is for those of you who still have summer somewhere, probably very far from here.

It’s a vibrant dish, with all the colors and flavors of the Mediterranean. To get it right, you do need good sun-ripened eggplants  and plenty fresh basil. No greenhouse ghosts of ingredients please.

Pasta incasciata is traditionally prepared in Sicily for the August 15th holiday. The term means “baked in a mold” or “baked with cheese”, in other words a timbale.

Timbales have been popular in Southern Italian cuisine  as early as the XVII century and they still are. I love the sensual description of a pasta timbale  given by Tomasi di Lampedusa. In its legendary novel The Leopard, he describes a dish presented at the table of Fabrizio, prince of Salina in XIX century Western Sicily.

“The burnished gold of the crust, the fragrance of sugar and cinnamon they exuded, were but preludes to the delights released from the interior when the knife broke the crust; first came a smoke laden with aromas, then chicken livers, hard-boiled eggs, sliced ham, chicken, and truffles in masses of piping-hot, glistening macaroni, to which meat juice gave an exquisite hue of suede.”

The pasta incasciata is the peasant version of the princely timbale. Meat, spices and truffles are substituted by (less expensive) eggplants, eggs, cheese and some sausage.

May be simplified, but to me it’s a royal treat.

Recipe

  • 1 kg short pasta like penne or anelletti
  • 3 medium eggplants, fried
  • 2-3 cups basic tomato sauce
  • 2 hard-boiled eggs, sliced
  • 150 gr (5 ounces) ham shredded
  • 300 gr (10 ounces) mild cheese or mozzarella, cubed
  • 100 gr (3 ounces) grated Parmesan
  • a bunch of fresh basil leaves

My family’s version of the recipe is slightly lighter than the original. If you wish to follow the tradition, use Italian salami instead of ham and pecorino instead of Parmesan.

Using the recipe in the link above, make a basic tomato sauce with two 400 gr./12 ounces  can diced tomatoes. Cook pasta in large pot of boiling salted water for half of the time indicated on the package. Drain well and toss with 3/4 of the tomato sauce and half of the Parmesan.

Cut each fried eggplant slice in 5-6 pieces. Prepare all ingredients on the table.  Preheat oven at 20o° degrees C (400 F°)

Build up the timbale in layers starting with a ladleful of sauce on the bottom of a ovenproof pan. Top a layer of pasta with cheese, ham, egg slices, eggplant and a few basil leaves. Sprinkle lightly with Parmesan. You should be able to make 3-4 layers depending on the size of the pan.

End with a layer of pasta.  Drizzle 3-4 tablespoon of the reserved tomato sauce, add a few basil leaves and a final sprinkle of Parmesan.

Bake until cheese melts and timbale sets, 20 to 25 minutes. Serves 12.

I’m going eggplant

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Eggplant, aubergine, has been around the Mediterranean for more than 500 years. No wonder this luxurious vegetable of Indian origin became a staple of Sicilian cooking. In a land too dry and warm to support large-scale cattle breeding, meat was an expensive rarity. Peasants in Southern Italy lived on a basic diet of olive oil, pasta, cheese and vegetables, occasionally fish. Eggplant, enriched by cooking in oil, must have been a welcome addition to their simple dishes.

Later in history some unknown gastronomic hero conceived the heavenly combination of tomato and eggplants. Fried eggplants are still used for a number of spectacular – and virtually vegetarian – dishes like eggplant parmesan,  caponata, pasta incasciata. I promise recipes for all these.

In my memory, the aroma of fried eggplants permeates images of luminous Sicilian summers. Memories of  green shutters closed against the heat. Tiny whitewashed alleys where you don’t see anybody but someone is cooking something magical somewhere. Memories of fragrant spaghetti with the sweetest tomato sauce piled high with slabs of golden aubergines and a sprinkle of baked ricotta, pasta alla Norma.

Yes, you can use grilled eggplants instead of fried, I know. But for a real bite of Sicily, please just try, even if only once. Fry and be happy.