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Melanzana - purple pleasure

The last days of Summer and early Autumn is when eggplants come into their own. This year we have had a cool summer, not really a summer at all, and so they have appeared later than normal.

With vaccinations rolling out we gingerly step towards "normal" but it's not over yet. Our friends and family in Italy are once again facing a nation-wide lock down as the map turns red and our future dreams narrow once more.

In our town, it's festival time but it's lacking the usual freedom, joy or lightness. We watch performances one seat away from others or with masks on, and we mingle with nervousness.

The comfort of the generous melanzana is timely!

It's the queen of the summer vegetables. Melanzana, eggplant, aubergine, brinjal - whatever you call them, these glossy purple produce populate gardens and markets in late summer having devoured the sunshine over months.

They are a vegetable enigma. They have a taste of their own but beautifully take on the flavours of others. They are unpleasant when not well-cooked ( squeaky, tough, bitter) but scrumptious when burnt over a flame until they are soft and gooey.

The melanzana features right across the Southern Mediterranean, the Middle East, Africa, India and South-East Asia like a long culinary ribbon.

It is an ancient vegetable, not of the new world and represents the influence of the Arabs in Mediterranean cooking, including Italian. I adore the way the melanzana soaks up oil, lemon, garlic and tomato and the flavour pops when sprinkled with fresh herbs or yoghurt.

My mission is to open the wonderful world of eggplant appreciation to those who say they don't like them, so I am continuously searching for and playing with recipes. Here are three of my favourites

NOTE - to salt or not to salt? I don't salt my eggplants although many recipes say to do this. I take my lead from Raffaele's mother who never salted her eggplants but made sure she only cooked with them when they were ripe, fresh and in season (preferably out of the garden) and she cooked them well.

Pasta alla Norma

This is my version of the famous rich Sicilian pasta dish named after Bellini's opera Norma. It makes use of all the late summer vegetables and is so hearty it's excellent for vegetarians and vegans who may miss a good ragu.

2 medium eggplant

2 medium zucchini

2 large red capsicums

1 clove of garlic

2 tomatoes

olive oil

small bunch of basil

salt and pepper to taste

Pasta for about 4 people.

Cut the eggplant into 1 cm slices and then across to make batons about 1 cm wide.

Heat about olive oil in a pan and fry the eggplant batons in batches until they are soft, slightly brown and well cooked. Put on kitchen paper to drain.

In a food processer, pure the zucchini, capsicum and garlic making a smooth paste.

Add a more oil to the pan and gently cook the paste for around 1 minute.

Peel and chop the tomatoes and add these to the pan. Cook until all the ingredients are combined and the oil is separated and floating a little on the top. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Turn off while you cook the pasta. I like to use penne or macaroni because the sauce is chunky.

Boil a large pan of salted water and when bubbling rapidly put in the pasta to cook.

Tear up a good number of basil leaves.

Add the cooked eggplant to the sauce and heat. The oil should ooze out of the eggplant.

When the pasta is cooked, mix it with the sauce, some of the pasta water and the basil leaves. Serve with grated pecorino or ricotta salata and sprinkle some fresh basil leaves on the top.

Melanzane Ripiene

The Arabic food influence did not extend to the traditional Arabic use of Rice in South East of Italy. Rice is used to stuff vegetables in Sicily but not Puglia where they are stuffed with breadcrumbs.

2 medium to large eggplants

200g of breadcrumbs

150g grated cheese ( half pecorino and half parmigiana)

2 tablespoons of black olives with their stones removed

1 tablespoons of salted capers (rinsed)

50 ml of tomato pure

a handful of finely chopped parsley

a handful of finely chopped basil

1 onion

1 clove of garlic - finely chopped

1 egg

Olive oil

salt and pepper to taste.

Slice the eggplants in two lengthways.

Fry them in plenty of oil until they are soft.

Using a knife, cut around the inside edge being careful not to break the skin, then scoop out the flesh with a spoon, making an empty shell around 1cm thick.

Finely chop the onion and fry until soft but not brown.

Finely chop the eggplant flesh and add this to the pan and cook for a few more minutes.

Put this mixture into a bowl and add the breadcrumbs, olives, capers, garlic, parsley and basil, tomato and mix well.

Beat an egg and add this to the bowl with the grated cheese.

Mix well. Add pepper and salt to taste

Place the eggplant shells in an oven dish and spoon in the mixture.

Finally spread some tomato pure over the top and bake in an oven at 180 degrees for around 30 minutes.

Let them sit for a while and serve at room temperature.

Melanzane Parmigiana

The Parmigiana has conquered Italy. You can find it almost everywhere, but it is very common in the South. It always tastes slightly different as each region, village or person adds their own spin on it. This is mine.

2 medium to large eggplants

olive oil

2 eggs

300ml tomato pure

1 clove of garlic

300g fresh ricotta

200g grated parmigiana or pecorino cheese

a bunch of fresh basil

salt and pepper to taste

Slice the eggplant into thin slices.

Beat the eggs in a bowl and season with salt and pepper.

Heat plenty of olive oil in a pan.

Dip each slice of eggplant in the egg and fry the slices until they are soft and brown.

Place the slices on kitchen paper to drain.

In a pan put the tomato pure, a crushed clove of garlic, a pinch of salt and a good glug of oil and simmer until the sauce is cooked. (around 15 minutes). Put this aside.

Take a baking pan that will hold about 4 layers or more of the eggplant slices.

Coat the sides with oil.

Layer the bottom with eggplant slices so it is well covered.

Spread a thin layer of the tomato on the eggplant slices.

Sprinkle on a generous amount of grated cheese then dollops of ricotta.

Tear up basil leaves and sprinkle them over followed by a good grind of black pepper.

Repeat with another layer of eggplant and continue until there is no more eggplant, finishing with an eggplant layer.

On the top, spread the tomato a a good sprinkle of grated cheese.

Bake in a moderate oven for around 30 minutes.

Take out and let it sit and serve at room temperature. It is also very good the next day.

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