In David Ruggerio’s Italian Kitchen, he writes, “Eggplants are to Italians as sex is to nymphomaniacs.” How true. My knees weaken at the thought of a pot of Sicilian eggplant sauce, rich tomato red, studded with glistening chunks of garlicky eggplant, waiting to be ladled over a steaming plate of spaghettini.
And don’t forget about caponata, primly described by one dictionary as “a dish of eggplant and other vegetables, pine nuts and anchovies, cooked in olive oil and served at room temperature, often as an appetizer.” Wars have been fought over less.
Then there’s the grande dame of all eggplant dishes, eggplant parmesan. Some day soon I’m going to throw nutritional caution to the wind and make a big, greasy tray of the stuff, make it the way my foremothers did–frying up the breaded eggplant slices in olive oil and draining them on brown paper grocery bags laid flat on the kitchen counter, stacked one on top of the other, smelling up the entire house. Heaven.
As important as eggplants are to Italian cooking, I have always assumed that they must be Italian. (My assumption should come as no surprise, as I grew up in a family where my Aunt Tessie was known to state authoritatively, “The Italians invented food.”) So imagine my chagrin when I Googled eggplant only to discover that although the homeland of the eggplant is in dispute, the contenders are China, India, and even, according to one source, Iran.
I should have known better–one of the greatest recipe names of all times is Imam Bayildi, “the Imam fainted,” which was what the Imam (a Muslim prayer leader) was said to have done upon tasting this savory Turkish dish, a spicy onion- and tomato-stuffed eggplant. Through my research I also learn that the eggplant is technically a fruit (one source even called it a berry) and a member of the nightshade family, which includes the eggplant’s not-so-deadly cousins the tomato, the bell pepper and the potato.
I wanted to be able to write about how the Italian word for eggplant, melanzana, comes from the words “mala insana” or mad apple, the idea being that eggplants are so delicious they drive you insane. Unfortunately, my son (who is seriously considering majoring in linguistics) told me that is spurious folk etymology–in other words, a romanticized lie–and proceeded to explain how melanzana (as well as the French aubergine and the Spanish berenjena) all logically derive from the Sanskrit vatingana. Whatever. Eggplants are insanely delicious.
My grandmother grew eggplants in her garden, right in the backyard of 16 Chester St., her suburban Mount Vernon, N.Y., home; so did my Uncle Al in nearby Larchmont–dark and firm-fleshed with shining skin, hanging like oversized light bulbs from the branch. There’s nothing worse than an aging, spongy eggplant; garden fresh is the holy grail. This could be a problem for someone like me, who, despite a lifetime of good intentions, has never done any serious gardening, but I am saved by the fresh ones readily available at my local farmers’ market.
My Aunt Frances, so devoted to home and family, died while cooking eggplant on a Sunday morning in the fall of 1989. This is a true story. She was nearly 80 and not in the best of health, living alone in the house on Farquhar Avenue in Yonkers that her father-in-law, Falco Campana, had built with his own hands many years before. She must have been standing in front of the stove, frying slices of the vegetable for a Sunday dinner parmesan, when she felt overcome and went over to the sofa in the little sitting area off the kitchen to sit down and rest. It was there that my cousin Frankie found her.
My Uncle Sal’s nephew and some extended family moved from New York to Wilmington, N.C., several years ago and opened A Taste of Italy Italian Delicatessen. On the menu as a $4 roll, a $4.50 wedge, or a $30 hot tray is eggplant parmigiana. The last time I talked to my uncle, his 80-something sister, Mary, was still getting up at dawn to prepare the eggplant herself. “She uses my mother’s recipe,” he insisted. “I swear, that is my mother’s eggplant!” If you figure that mamma was born in the Campanian countryside in the late 1800s and must have learned to cook at her mother and grandmother’s side, the authenticity of it all is enough to make you jump in the car for a road trip to the beach, 4608 Maple Ave. to be exact.
I cannot write about the eggplant without mentioning an important issue I have spent years trying to come to grips with–whether, in its natural state, eggplant is bitter and needs to be salted and left to drain in order to, in the words of the late Vincent Schiavelli in his cookbook/memoir Bruculinu, America, “release the bitter liquid that will leach out.” That sounds downright scary. I value simplicity in cooking, but is that making me lazy or foolish when it comes to the eggplant? I never saw my mother salt and drain an eggplant, which gives me some measure of confidence, but still … I decide to go to the source: the Talisman.
Ada Boni’s The Talisman Italian Cookbook, the only cookbook owned by many first generation Italian-American women, was originally published in Italy in 1928 as Talismano della Felicità–“the talisman of happiness,” which gives you some idea of the place that food occupies in the Italian psyche. My reprint of the 1950 edition is utterly charmless: no pictures, no commentary or chitchat, with 15 eggplant recipes taking up a scant 4 1/2 pages. It was translated by Mrs. Matilde LaRosa, whose credentials are laid out in the foreword as being “an Italian housewife” and “an experienced cook.” If Ada and Matilde tell me to salt my eggplants, I vow to start doing so. Fortunately, they don’t. From “eggplant in a skillet” to “eggplant sandwiches,” there is nary a mention of this preparatory step. What a relief.
But I’m not a complete Johnny-one-note when it comes to eggplant–my family likes non-Italian recipes too: ratatouille, that fragrant French mélange of summer vegetables, where even a rigid recipe follower like myself can cut loose and dispense with measuring cups. (My husband just made a killer batch today, which we took right over in the pot to Oval Park, where we picnicked and listened to a reggae concert with our neighbors.) And baba ganoush, roasted eggplant pureed with lemon and garlic with minced onion and parsley stirred in, scooped up by hot pita bread. My current favorite recipe for the mad apple is green olive and eggplant tapenade, which I clipped from a food magazine years ago but found online verbatim at www.aubergines.org. (Click on “Recipes” at the left of the screen. If you’re an overachiever like me you’ll roast the red peppers yourself instead of resorting to the jarred ones.)
I’m happy to report that eggplants seem to be in vogue these days, evidenced by the different varieties I’ve started to see for sale, especially skinny Japanese eggplants. One of the vendors at the Durham Farmers’ Market recently tried to get me to buy some. She just about had me convinced: “Some people really like them,” she urged. I remembered that one of my neighbors slices them lengthwise and grills them; the guests use their fingers to pick up the narrow ribbons, deliciously oily and limp, devouring a plateful in nothing flat. One of these days I am going to take the plunge and buy some. Really, I am. But today I pick out several fat, beautiful eggplants, glossy black-purple. The kind my mother buys. The kind my grandmothers and aunts cooked. They are just so deliziose.
I developed this from a recipe by Mollie Katzen of Moosewood cookbook fame. The best thing about it is the way it showcases eggplant in a largely unadorned way. Mollie pre-salts her eggplant; I don’t.
1 eggplant, unpeeled
2 tbs. olive oil, plus some to grease the baking sheet
2 tbs. lemon juice
2 cloves chopped garlic
parsley and basil
Thinly slice the eggplant and arrange the slices on an olive-oiled baking sheet. Bake at 375 degrees until tender. (Timing will depend upon how thinly the eggplant is sliced. Don’t let it dry out.)
Whisk together the olive oil, fresh lemon juice and garlic. Gently mix this in a shallow bowl with the eggplant slices, along with some minced parsley and basil. Salt and pepper to taste.
The eggplant can be served at room temperature or refrigerated and served cold. It is easily multiplied and, like so many things Mediterranean, tastes best with good bread.
Open-Faced Eggplant Sandwiches
My version of this recipe was inspired by one in Dom DeLuise’s cookbook Eat This … It’ll Make You Feel Better! Before you sneer at a cookbook written by a comedian, just try Father Orsini’s Eggplant Balls or Dom’s Mom’s Stuffed Eggplant Rolls.
1 eggplant, chopped but unpeeled
1 onion, 2 peppers (red or green), chopped
2 tomatoes, chopped
3-4 cloves garlic, chopped
fresh basil and Italian parsley
escarole or other dark lettuce
peasant-style bread, sliced thickly
olive oil and red wine vinegar
black olives, sliced
Chop and saute onion in some olive oil. When it is soft, add eggplant and peppers. Cook until eggplant is tender. (You may need to add a little more oil.) Toward the end of cooking, add garlic. Take off heat and stir in basil and parsley. In a separate skillet, chop and steam lettuce. Arrange bread on a baking sheet, and cover with eggplant mixture, lettuce and tomato.
Bake at 300 degrees for 15 to 20 minutes. Sprinkle with red wine vinegar, capers, sliced black olives and a little more fresh basil.