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Melanzane Calabre, Calabrian Eggplant

Hot weather and spicy foods go hand-in-hand; here’s a tasty chilled eggplant dish from Calabria that will work nicely as antipasto or vegetable in the summer months:

  • 4 long eggplants, peeled, cut lengthwise into 1/2 inch (slightly thinner than 1 cm) slices, and salted for an hour
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 hot peppers, minced
  • Minced fresh oregano to taste
  • 2 tablespoons vinegar
  • 1/2 cup extravirgin olive oil
  • Salt

Rinse the eggplant slices, boil them 3-4 minutes, and lay them on a towel to dry. Make an emulsion of the vinegar and oil, and stir it into the herbs. Put a layer of eggplant in a dish, season it with the oil, put down another layer of eggplant and continue until all is used up. Chill for 4-6 hours before serving.

Capunatina, The Little Caponata

Some versions of caponata can be amazingly baroque. Here’s one as quick and simple as it is tasty:

  • 1 pound (500 g) eggplant
  • 3/4 pound (350 g) ripe tomatoes
  • 4 large peppers (red and yellow make for pleasant color contrasts)
  • 1/4 pound (100 g) caciocavallo cheese, diced (caciocavallo is a moderately sharp firm cheese; in its absence use mild Provolone)
  • 1 large onion
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine
  • Olive oil
  • Salt & pepper to taste
  • Basil

Begin by dicing the eggplant and leaving the pieces in a colander for an hour, liberally sprinkled with salt, to draw out their bitter juices. Seed the peppers and cut them into strips, chop and seed the tomatoes. Preheat the oven to 375 F (180C)

Rinse the salt off the diced eggplant, pat the pieces dry, and combine them with the other ingredients in an oven-proof dish. Sprinkle liberally with olive oil, season with salt and pepper to taste, and bake for a half hour. Stir everything around, mixing in the half cup of dry white wine, and bake another half hour.

Caponata alla Sicilana

Lo Scoglio Ubriaco's Caponata

Lo Scoglio Ubriaco’s Caponata

The savory dish more people probably associate with Sicily than any other is caponata, a (generally) eggplanty delight that has now spread throughout the Peninsula, much in the manner of cotoletta alla milanese. As is the case with the cotoletta, which is one thing in Milano and too often something else elsewhere, much of the caponata one encounters outside of Sicily is a shadow of what it should be — a zesty summer dish that’s perfect eaten cold, and ideal for perking up an indolent appetite on a hot day.

For that matter, it’s much too good to abandon after the summer and is now made year round, in an infinite variety of forms. Some are purely vegetarian, whereas what’s made in Palermo can also contain fish. Though there is never any one recipe for a traditional dish, the recipe that follows serves as a base for a great many variations, some of which follow below. The recipes are based on those in Pino Correnti’s Il Libro d’Oro della Cucina e dei Vini di Sicilia.

  • 2 1/4 pounds (1 k) eggplants
  • 1/2 pound (225 g) green olives packed in brine, pitted
  • 2 ounces (60 g) salted capers, well rinsed
  • 1 1/4 pounds (500 g) celery ribs
  • 1 cup tomato sauce (optional)
  • 2/3 pound (300 g) onions
  • 2/3 pound (300 g) tomatoes
  • 1/3 cup vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • Basil
  • 3/8 cup pine nuts
  • Olive oil
  • Salt

Begin by stripping the filaments from the celery sticks, then blanch them in lightly salted water for five minutes. Drain them, cut them into bite-size pieces, sauté them in a little oil, and set them aside.

Wash the eggplant, dice them, put the pieces in a strainer, sprinkle them liberally with salt, and let them sit for several hours to draw out the bitter juices. While they’re sitting, blanch, peel, seed and chop the tomatoes.

Once the eggplant has sat, rinse away the salt and pat the pieces dry. Finely slice the onion and sauté them in olive oil; once they have turned translucent add the capers, pine nuts, olives, and tomatoes. Continue cooking, stirring with a wooden spoon, until the tomatoes are done, about 15 minutes, and then remove the pot from the fire.

While the tomatoes are cooking heat a second pot of oil and fry the diced eggplant, in several batches to keep the oil from getting chilled. When the last batch is done, return the tomato pot to the fire and stir in the eggplant, together with the previously sautéed celery. Cook for several minutes over a low flame, stirring gently, then stir in the vinegar and the sugar; when the vinegar has almost completely evaporated remove the pot from the fire and let it cool.

Serve the caponata cold with a garnish of fresh basil; it will keep in the refrigerator for several days.

And now some variations:

Capunata Palermitana chi Purpiceddi, Palermo-Style Caponata with Fish

To serve 8 you’ll need:

  • The ingredients listed above, plus:
  • 1 pound (450 g) baby octopus (or squid), cleaned
  • 4/5 cup (100 g) flour
  • 2 artichokes, sliced into eighths and blanched

The method follows that given above, with the following variations: Flour the celery sticks, artichokes, olives and capers, and fry them. If the octopus are very small fry them whole, otherwise chop them before frying them. Drain all the fried ingredients well on absorbent paper, add them to the tomato mixture, and finish cooking as above.

Capunata Barunissa di Carni, The Baroness of Carni’s Caponata

As Mr. Correnti observes, the Noble Lady must have been given to flights of fancy, sensuous, and wealthy.

To serve 8 you’ll need:

  • All the ingredients of the preceding two versions except the octopus.
  • 3/4 pound (350 g) swordfish filets, thinly sliced, floured and fried.
  • 1/2 pound (225 g) diced lobster tail, barely blanched
  • 1/2 pound (225 g) asparagus tips (wild asparagus will be best), steamed
  • 1/4 pound (110 g) shrimp, boiled until just done and shelled
  • A scant ounces (50 g) bottarga (tuna roe, available from a delicatessen), grated or crumbled
  • Minced parsley

Prepare the caponata following the procedure outlined above; gently combining the swordfish filets, asparagus tips and diced lobster tail with everything else and lay the caponata out in an elegant serving dish. Garnish it with the shrimp, bottarga and minced parsley, and serve, with a dry white wine.

Walter’s Variazione della Parmigiana, Illustrated: A Very Tasty Lighter Version

Walter's Variazione alla Parmigiana: Enjoy!

Walter’s Variazione alla Parmigiana: Enjoy!

Melanzane alla Parmigiana, Eggplant Parmesan, is justly one of the favorite summer dishes throughout Italy. However, by modern standards the classic Neapolitan recipe is heavy, because the eggplant are fried before they receive their cheesy tomatoey seasoning. Walter Smittarello of the Antica Osteria Al Castello  in Sorio di Gambellara (near Vicenza) has developed a recipe that is lighter, extraordinarily elegant, and also easy to do.

I was at his restaurant because I had stopped to visit Michela Cariolaro and Carlo Sitiza of Palazzetto Ardi, and she invited me to come to a photo shoot at the Antica Osteria she was preparing several dishes for.

When I got there Walter’s wife Paola was laying sliced baked eggplant on baking tins, in rows of three. She prefers mauve-colored long eggplant rather than the purple variety because she finds them to be more delicately flavored.

Walter's Variazione alla Parmigiana: Tomato on the First Layer

Walter’s Variazione alla Parmigiana: Tomato on the First Layer

She had begun by peeling away strips of skin lengthwise with a potato peeler (reserve them) because if you don’t the skin will contract as the eggplant bakes, wrinkling the disks. The next step is to slice the eggplant crosswise into 3/4-inch (2 cm) slices, salt them to draw their bitter juices, and put them in a colander to drain for about four hours.

When the time was up she rinsed them, patted them dry, brushed them with olive oil, laid them on baking sheets, and baked them in a preheated 440 F (220 C) oven for 20 minutes, turning them after 10. And then she let them cool.

When I arrived she had laid them out in rows of three on a baking sheet and was spreading freshly made simple seedless tomato sauce over them.

Walter's Variazione alla Parmigiana: Spreading the Cheese

Walter’s Variazione alla Parmigiana: Spreading the Cheese

Once the disks are coated with a thin layer of tomato sauce, the next step is to put cheese over them. The traditional Neapolitan recipe calls for mozzarella (buffalo milk if possible), but getting really fresh buffalo milk mozzarella in the far Northeast is problematic. And, it’s heavier.

So Walter opted for Robiola, a very fresh mild creamy cheese, beaten in a bowl to make it even creamier. In its absence one could use cream cheese, adding heavy cream and working the mixture until it’s the consistency of thick whole yogurt. Paola was putting a healthy tablespoon of cheese into the center of each disk and spreading it some.

Walter's Variazione alla Parmigiana: A Drizzle of Basil Oil

Walter’s Variazione alla Parmigiana: A Drizzle of Basil Oil

The next step is a little olive oil, infused with fresh basil. It’s the sort of thing one can easily make: Take several fresh basil leaves, grind them to a paste in a mortar, and work about a half cup of olive oil into the paste. It’s something to be made and used because fresh basil will oxidize and spoil quickly in the oil; if you decide you want more you can always make more.

In terms of the amount on each layer, about a half teaspoon or so.

When you have finished drizzling olive oil over the eggplant, lay a second slice of eggplant slices (selected to be slightly less in diameter than the first) over the first.

Walter's Variazione alla Parmigiana: The second Layer...

Walter’s Variazione alla Parmigiana: The second Layer…

Spread a thin layer of tomato sauce over the next layer of eggplant slices.

Walter's Variazione alla Parmigiana: And then Cheese...

Walter’s Variazione alla Parmigiana: And then Cheese…

After you have spread tomato, spread the cheese too, and then a half teaspoon of basil-infused oil.

Walter's Variazione alla Parmigiana: The Third Layer...

Walter’s Variazione alla Parmigiana: The Third Layer…

The next step is to top the eggplant Parmesan with a final slice that is again slightly smaller in diameter than those below. At this point, if need be you can refrigerate your eggplant for up to several hours, which means that if you’re planning a dinner party you can make Walter’s Variazione della Parmigiana largely ahead.

One more thing to do now, however: julienne the strips of eggplant peel you removed from the eggplant and fry them until crisp in hot oil, together with as many fresh basil leaves as you have mounds of eggplant parmisan — they will serve as garnish. Drain them on absorbent paper and set them aside.

Come time to finish the dish, bake the eggplant Parmesan in a preheated 360 F (180 C) oven for about 10 minutes. Top the baked eggplant Parmesan with a little more tomato sauce, dribbling it down the sides from the top — you don’t want to add the tomato sauce before baking because it will burn — and garnish with the julienned strips of eggplant peel and a basil leaf. Plate the eggplant Parmesan, decorating the dishes as you like (Paola used dabs of tomato and basil oil, and a dusting of dried tomato skins whirred to a red powder in a blender), and enjoy!

More Parmigiana:
Melanzane alla Parmigiana, the Traditional Recipe
A Lighter Version of Melanzane alla Parmigiana

Eggplant Parmesan, Melanzane alla Parmigiana

In introducing this greatest of Neapolitan dishes, Ms. Francesconi tells of going to a wonderful restaurant on the Isle of Ischia, long before it was taken over by hoards of tourists, to enjoy the Pirozzi Sisters’ Eggplant Parmesan. It had a special touch nobody could figure out; some said eggs, and others even suggested chocolate as the secret ingredient. Ms Francesconi closes her introduction with the hope that somebody, building on this recipe, will manage to equal that marvel of yesteryear.

To serve 4-6 enthusiastic diners:

  • 4 pounds (a scant 2 k) eggplant
  • Olive oil for frying
  • 2 1/2 pounds (1 k) ripe tomatoes, blanched, peeled and chopped
  • A small piece of onion, minced
  • Abundant basil
  • 3/4 pound (350 g) fresh mozzarella (buffalo milk if possible)
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2 cup grated Parmigiano
  • Freshly grated pepper

Note: Since the wateriness of fresh tomatoes varies the above is a minimum. You can also use 3.6 pounds (1.5 k) canned tomatoes or 1 1/2 quarts (1.5 liters) bottled tomato sauce.

Chop the tomatoes, drain them well, and cook them with the minced onion and a sprig of basil. When they have softened, drain them and put them through a food mill, then cook them a little more over low heat, without letting the sauce thicken too much. Salt the sauce when it is done and don’t add oil, as the eggplant will have absorbed enough as it fries.

Peel the eggplants and cut them into quarter-inch slices; salt them and place them between to plates to press out the bitter juices. After 1 to 2 hours rinse them and pat them dry. In the mean time, heat a pot of oil almost to the smoking point, then fry the slices, a few at a time, removing them from the oil while they are still lightly colored. Set the slices upright in a rack to drain, then put them on a sheet of absorbent paper to remove all the oil you can.

Mince the basil and cut the mozzarella into thin slices, then cut the slices into strips.

Take a 10-inch diameter oven-proof dish that’s about 3 inches high and spread a couple of tablespoons of tomato sauce over it. Next, beat the eggs with 2/3 cup of tomato sauce.

Arrange a third of the eggplant in the bottom of the dish, overlapping the slices slightly, and cover them with 2 tablespoons grated cheese, 5-6 pieces basil leaves, 2-3 tablespoons of the tomato-egg sauce, and half the mozzarella. Repeat this process with another layer. Lay down a third layer, covering it with the remaining grated cheese, egg-tomato sauce, and, if need be a little more tomato sauce to cover.

Bake in a slow oven for about an hour, turning the heat up in the last few minutes to lightly brown the top. The dish should not be eaten hot – let it cool some, or better yet, entirely. It will be better the next day, and even better the day after that.

Variations:

  • Flavor the eggplant with a well cooked, but not excessively thick tomato sauce made with oil and minced onion. Bake the assembled dish at length in a hot oven, and brown it well.
  • Make a thick tomato sauce with no oil, heat the assembled dish over a low flame rather than in the oven, and remove it from the fire as soon as it begins to bubble.
  • Low fat: Rather than fry the eggplant, microwave it (see your microwave’s booklet for instructions) and don’t put any oil in the tomato sauce. Make the rest as normal.

Yield: 6-8 servings Melanzane alla Parmigiana, Eggplant Parmesan.

More Parmigiana:
A Lighter Version of Melanzane alla Parmigiana
Walter’s Variazione della Parmigiana, Illustrated