Sunday, June 15, 2014

Eggplant, The Perfect Way -- Calabria

I have returned to A Mediterranean Feast by Clifford Wright.  I suspect it will become a favorite because of its diversity of recipes, and I've only read the first hundred pages!
ISBN 0-688-15305-4
In Part I:  An Algebra of Mediterranean Gastronomy, Chapter 2:  Harvest of Sorrow, Food of Dreams (page 77), I came across Melanzane alla Finitese, with an accompanying paragraph of:
Arab agriculturists brought the eggplant to the Mediterranean from Persia, or perhaps even from the Arabian peninsula, in the ninth or tenth century.  The eggplant was treated with suspicion at first, but soon became a favorite vegetable. ... Calabrians have seemingly hundreds of different preparations for eggplant and many might agree that this is the perfect way. The late American food writer Waverly Root claimed that this dish is so called because it is a specialty of San Martino di Finita.
Eggplant, The Perfect Way

8 baby eggplant (about 1 1/2 pounds)
Salt to taste
2/3 cup freshly grated pecorino cheese
1/4 finely chopped fresh basil leaves
Freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
Basil doesn't get any fresher than this!
1.  Slit each eggplant open in the middle, slicing it lengthwise and making sure you do not cut all the way through.  Hollow out a small amount of pulp with a small spoon such as a demitasse or baby spoon.  Save the pulp for making the recipe on page 531.* Open the eggplant with your fingers and salt the inside.  Leave them on a plate to drain of their bitter juices for 30 minutes, then pat dry the insides with paper towels.

2. In a small bowl, mix the pecorino, basil, and pepper.  Using your fingers, stuff each eggplant with the cheese mixture.  Close each eggplant with a toothpick if necessary so very little stuffing escapes.

3.  In a medium-size skillet, heat the olive oil over medium heat and cook the eggplant until soft, about 25 minutes.  Transfer to a serving platter, drizzle with a little olive oil, and let sit for 10 minutes before serving.

Makes 4 servings.

* Eggplant Omelette Fritters

My Notes

I used only two baby eggplants so I reduced the cheese mixture quantities to match (about one fourth of the recommended amounts).

They didn't say anything about the stem end, so I cut it off as close to the stem as I could.  This turned out to be convenient for hollowing out the pulp.  I was careful to open the eggplants only enough for the work that needed to be done so the uncut part would not split.

Slit, scooped, and salted
Since I was only using two eggplants, I did not save the pulp to make the recipe on page 531. 

For each eggplant, I used about 1/2 tsp of salt which I poured into my hand then gently poured into the eggplant.  Closing and shaking the eggplant helped distribute the salt. They were placed cut-side down on the plate to make the draining easier.

The cheese mixture had a bit more than 1/8 tsp. of pepper, which I thought was too much but my guest taster liked.

The toothpicks went in at a slant to the cut.

The olive oil was heated until it started to smoke, then I turned the heat down until it was barely smoking.  Then I put in the stuffed eggplants.  My concern was knowing when they were done -- nothing happened for about 7 to 8 minutes after they sat in the hot oil.  Then some sizzling occurred and I felt like they were actually cooking!
See the toothpicks?
I turned the eggplants four times, letting them sit at least five minutes on each side before turning.  The skin turned dark and the flesh slumped, showing me it was getting soft.  It was pretty easy to see they were getting done. 

To serve them, I pulled out the toothpicks and opened them up, trying to get some of the stuffing on both halves.  That was hard; one half had most, if not all, of the stuffing.  I didn't drizzle more oil on them because they had oil on them still from the pan.  I did let them rest ten minutes, as directed.

The Verdict

This was very good!  At first I thought I should avoid eating the skin but it tasted fine -- not burnt or scorched or bitter.  Parts of it did slide off the flesh so you can look for that if you don't want to eat it.

The flesh was tender and mild; the cheese, basil, and pepper combination is tasty in its own right but a good accompaniment for the flesh -- the pecorino was strong but the basil was in enough quantity that their flavors blended and complimented each other.  No one flavor dominated even though I thought there was too much pepper.

I sincerely wished for more of the tasty stuffing.  I used all that I made but I felt the eggplants were modestly stuffed; I think the next time around I would fill them full.  Next time, too, I would consider serving them unopened (but without the toothpick) because I expect it to be easier to get the stuffing in every bite.

Success!  I would do this again and especially for company.  It is unique, simple, and impressive.  My guest taster was very suspicious of eggplant yet liked it enough to eat the whole thing.  I served it with broiled steak; fresh tomatoes dressed with balsamic vinegar, pepper, and basil strips; and pine nut couscous.  A very satisfying meal.
Hot enough to steam up the camera lens


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