Saturday, November 12, 2011

My Sicilian Table: The Eggplant

Sauteed Melanzane fritte
eggplant served on a ceramic
dish from Ceramica Marsalese, Marsala
There are as many recipes for eggplant in the Sicilian kitchen as there are days in the month--and then some. The eggplant, called melanzana in Italian, is a favorite of the Sicilian kitchen. The eggplant originated in the area of what is today India and Pakistan and made its way to the Middle East where Arab conquerors brought it to Sicily. A member of the nightshade family, it is related to potatoes, tomatoes and bell peppers--and not surprisingly, our Sicilian kitchen offers many opportunities for family reunions.
Sauteed eggplant on pasta seved
on my childrens' personalized
pasta plates from childhood
made for them at Ceramica Marsalese!

In Sicily our favorite way to eat eggplant is sautéed, over pasta with tomato sauce. The Sicilian eggplant recipe that has been most popularized outside of Italy is caponata, which combines eggplant, onion, capers, celery, olives, and tomatoes in a sweet-sour sauce of sugar and vinegar.

In choosing eggplants, look for several factors. Eggplants are available year round in many North American markets, but the growing season is typically late Summer to late Fall and when you buy eggplant during those months, you will taste the difference. Seasonal eggplants are described in Sicily as being "tender"; not only is the texture different, but the flavor is milder, less acidic. For these recipes, choose the rounder, meatier Italian style eggplants. As I write, small round purple or white eggplant can still be found in the farmers markets of Southern California.

Eggplants from the local farmers
market on a plate from
 Arte Ceramica, Marsala.
Look for a deep purple color and smooth unblemished skin. (Sometimes eggplants from farmers markets may have little imperfections--don't be concerned about that.I have grown eggplants in my own organic garden for many years and what influences flavor most is  how quickly they reach your table from the garden.) 

Eggplants are rarely peeled completely before cooking, but Sicilian cooks like to peel alternating large strips of skin to make them more "digestible". (Digestibility is very important to Sicilians.) The next step will be to cut the eggplant into long slices about a quarter inch thick, and sprinkle them with salt . I suggest you use sea salt such as SOSALT, which is imported from western Sicily and found in Italian specialty stores. This allows the eggplants to sweat. “Sweating” takes about a half hour and you will want to put the slices in a colander so that the dark bitter liquid that is deposited will drain. My mother and my aunts always place a plate face down on the eggplants and a weight on top of that to gently press the liquid out of the eggplants.

Sliced and salted,
 they are ready to saute.
The eggplant is then ready to sauté. Wash the slices with water, pat them dry and then adjust the salt before cooking. In your largest sauté pan, heat a half cup approximately of oil. Here my advice may run counter to what you may have heard about frying eggplant. Although it is common wisdom that sunflower, peanut, corn and other vegetable oils are more suited for frying than olive oil, in reality many Sicilians use olive oil in their homes. In my family we always keep two grades of olive oil—one which is very light and suited for cooking; and a premium quality one, often unfiltered, used raw on foods and vegetables. The latter is never used for frying. I personally do not like the flavor of food which has been cooked or fried in most vegetable oils, although if I am cooking something that requires very high heat, I will use sunflower oil mixed with a bit of olive for flavor. This is a very personal decision, but I suggest you try using a light quality olive oil of the varieties found in supermarkets and see for yourself.

When the oil is hot, add the eggplants one by one, making sure not to overcrowd them. There should be enough room for each slice to be in contact with the bottom of the sauté pan, and the flame should be kept fairly high. The slices will cook quickly so keep an eye on them and turn them over when they turn golden.

Saute on medium to high heat.
Cooking eggplant quicky until golden brings
out  its flavor.
 A word of advice regarding cooking time. Unlike some other vegetables, eggplants should not be undercooked. Eggplants need to cook thoroughly in order to release their flavors. As a rule Sicilians do not undercook vegetables, but this is especially true with eggplants. A properly cooked eggplant does not resist to the bite.  Keep some oil near by as eggplants tend to absorb a lot of oil while cooking and you may need to add a bit more as you go. 

Panini of sauted eggplant,
 basil and burrata photographed
on my patio in Southern California.
When they are done transfer them to paper towels or absorbent paper to remove any excess oil. Then serve them with pasta and tomato sauce. In Sicilian homes they are brought to table on a serving dish with the pasta course. They are also delicious served on crusty bread as a light meal or snack such as the one I made for you here. I look forward to exploring other Sicilian eggplant recipes with you soon.

Ciao a presto!

1 comment:

  1. Eggplant Cream is great as a side dish with roast meat or tasty steamed fish especially if combined with good, homemade bread.