My beloved Nonna Maria had a stroke almost two years ago. She never recovered. I was on holiday with TP and TT, in the Majella National Park of Abruzzo, when I got the news. My first instinct was to get on the next plane back to Australia just like I had with my maternal grandfather’s passing four years earlier. My parents, however, told me to stay put and continue with our family holiday. I did as they said, but it was hard to appreciate Abruzzo’s many beauties while I silently grieved for the loss of my 81 year old grandmother. Choosing to make a life for myself far away from where I grew up has its drawbacks, particularly in sad circumstances like these.
Now, if I were to describe the backbone of my cooking repertoire, I would describe it as siculo-calabro-piemontese (Sicilian-Calabrese-Piedmontese), with the occasional indulgence from elsewhere along the Italian peninsula, Australia and France. Truth be told though, those rich, wine-infused meat dishes typical of Piedmont suit the cooler weather of late autumn, winter and early spring. In summer, with a few notable exceptions (think dishes served cold like vitello tonnato, zucchine in carpione and anchovies in green sauce), Piedmontese cookery has to take a backseat. Instead, I lean toward the ingredients, flavours and dishes of those southern, sundrenched regions where Nonna and my other grandparents came from, namely Sicily and Calabria.
This humid, sweat-inducing summer has been no exception. I’ve been making a beeline for eggplants – a common ingredient in Sicilian and Calabrese cooking – regularly at my local market in Corso Brunelleschi. With the memory of Nonna’s passing in mind, I’ve also found myself drawn to trying my hand at a dish she cooked particularly well (and there were many!), stuffed eggplants, or as she would have called them in her native Calabrese tongue, mulingiane chjine.
Nonna came of age at a time in southern Italy when many young girls (and to a slightly lesser extent, boys) did not have much formal schooling. In fact, while I was growing up, she often asked me to assist her with reading any correspondence such as letters, cards, bills she received, both in Italian and English, and responding accordingly. When she migrated to Australia in the late 1960s though, she went to great efforts to learn to speak English. And she more than made up for her lack of education with her considerable knowledge about food, cooking and gardening, having played a pivotal part in the workforce on the estate where her family were tenant farmers near the regional capital of Catanzaro. My father often says that her father, his Nonno Michele, was very sad when she married my Nonno Ferdinando – a blacksmith from La Sila – Calabria’s breathtakingly beautiful mountainous plateau – in the mid-1950s, as he was saying goodbye to his youngest child and an incredibly hardworking woman.
‘Recipes’ or dishes Nonna learned to make would have been passed down orally when she was growing up. Unlike many of us who cook today, she would have never consulted a written recipe. I certainly can’t remember her ever doing this. Some things, like the stuffed eggplants below, she just learned to make intuitively or by using her senses of touch, smell, taste, hearing and sight. To this day, the expression ad occhio or ‘by eye’ is used to describe this way of cooking that’s dictated by how something looks, as opposed to what the clock says, in Italy. She simply knew when quanto basta (q.b.) – an abbreviation common to many a written Italian recipe – literally meaning ‘how much is enough’. For this reason, it’s taken a while to work out the quantities for the stuffed eggplants I’ve come up with below.
Anyway, to ensure that their flavour replicated those of Nonna’s as much as possible, I enlisted the advice of my parents when working out the ingredients and cooking methods required to make her interpretation of one of Calabria’s many typical eggplant preparations. According to them, I needed small to medium sized dark-skinned eggplants, rice, pane raffermo or leftover bread, minced garlic, freshly grated pecorino, pepper, roughly chopped parsley, leftover tomato sauce, and two lightly beaten eggs for a crisp and compact finish. And, if there was an excess of filling, I could do what she did and stuff other nightshade family members like capsicums or tomatoes too. Looking back though, everyone agrees that her stuffed eggplants were the tastiest of all the stuffed vegetables she made. I do hope you like them as much as I did growing up.
Ingredients (serves 4-6)
- 200 g Originario (Roma) rice
- 2 thick slices stale country bread
- 5 medium sized eggplants
- 100 g pecorino cheese, freshly grated
- 1 large clove of garlic
- a handful of parsley
- a handful of basil leaves (optional)
- sea salt, to taste
- black pepper, freshly ground
- 2 eggs, lightly beaten
- extra virgin olive oil, as needed
- leftover tomato sauce, as needed
Bring rice to boil in plenty of salted water and cook covered on low to medium heat until tender but slightly al dente. Using a sieve, drain of excess cooking water. Rinse with cold water to stop it cooking from the residual heat. Drain, set aside and leave to cool completely in a large mixng bowl.
Soak bread slices in cold water. When the hardened bread has noticeably softened, drain of all excess water, break up into small pieces and add it to the bowl of rice.
Meanwhile, wash, dry and cut the eggplants in half lengthways. Place in a large pot with salted boiling water and blanch for seven to eight minutes, or just enough time for eggplants to soften slighty (N.B. You may need to do this in batches). Leave to cool (if in a hurry, you may want to emerge these in a bowl filed with cold water) and remove the inner pulp of the eggplant halves with a paring knife, spoon or a melon baller. Try to remove as much pulp as possible so the eggplants’ skin is quite fine. Squeeze the eggplant pulp of excess water and finely chop . Add to the large bowl with the rice and leftover bread.
Mince the garlic, chop the parsley (and basil, if using) and grate the pecorino. Add to bowl with the other ingredients. When all the ingredients are well combined, add the lightly beaten eggs and mix them through thoroughly. Add salt and pepper as needed.
Coat a large baking dish (or two if needed) with some leftover tomato sauce. Arrange the hollowed eggplant halves inside the dish and distribute the filling among them. Don’t be afraid to pack it in, as the consistency of these stuffed eggplants should be quite dense and compact. Coat their tops with more tomato sauce and drizzle with some extra virgin olive oil.
Cover baking dishes with aluminium foil and bake in an oven pre-heated to 200ºC for 25 minutes. Reduce the oven temperature to 180ºC, remove aluminium foil and bake for an additional 40 minutes are until the tops of the eggplant halves are crisp and golden brown. Remove from oven and leave to cool for at least 40 minutes. Best served tepid or reheated the next day.
Looking for more Italian recipes which require a ‘stuffing’ or ‘filling’ of some kind? Well, look no further than what my fellow Cucina Conversations bloggers are cooking for this topic! Yes, that’s right, after a three month break, we are back! We will now be posting on a quarterly basis:
Flavia of Flavia’s Flavors is preparing a fried treat I’ve always wanted to make but have been too afraid to, with her olive all’ascolana.
Marialuisa of Marmellata di Cipolle is making another stuffed vegetable with her zucchine ripiene.