Melanzane dal forno ripiene al pomodoro

Shades of purple

Eggplants are just barely in season. Although a summer vegetable, I want to write my first recipe in this journal utilizing the beautiful purple eggplant as a main ingredient. The rounded eggplant is special because its pale white flesh has very few seeds. When cooked its lavender skin becomes violet and its taste is mild and sweet. This particular kind of eggplant is often grown in Sicily. I’ve seen them in Arizona as well. Next to vine-ripened tomatoes, this is my favorite vegetable.

Eggplants (melanzane in Italian) remind me of Naples and of countless dinners shared at home and with friends. My journals are filled with notes on how to cook with eggplant. The following recipe was a favorite this summer.

Ingredients
for 2 as a main course, for 4 as an appetizer.

  • 1 eggplant
  • 12 vine-ripened cherry tomatoes
  • 1 thick slice of day old crusty Italian bread
  • 4 tablespoons of Pecorino Romano cheese
  • 2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
  • 10 fennel seeds, crushed
  • A sprinkle of fine sea salt
  • The leaves of 4 sprigs of fresh basil

Choose a fresh eggplant of any shape available. Preheat the oven to 220 degrees Celsius ( 425degrees Fahrenheit). Wash the eggplant thoroughly, drying off the skin. Remove the green stem and cut the eggplant lengthwise. Slice the eggplant flesh four times diagonally from top to bottom, first in one direction and then in the other, forming diamond-shaped cuts.

Brush the eggplant with olive oil, followed by crushed fennel seeds and a sprinkling of salt. Bake the eggplant in the oven in an oven dish covered with parchment paper for 25 minutes. The eggplant is done when it is pale golden brown and soft to the touch.

Melanzane dal forno ripiene al pomodoro

Meanwhile toast the day old bread until it crumbles easily, putting it aside in a bowl. Pick the basil leaves from the stems. Grate the Pecorino Romano cheese. Wash the cherry tomatoes and slice them as thinly as possible, catching all the juices. Mix the juice of the cherry tomatoes with three tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil, a bit of sea salt and the remaining crushed fennel seeds.

Mix the sliced tomatoes into the dressing. Scoop out the baked eggplant flesh, keeping the skin intact. Stir the eggplant through the tomatoes, adding carefully torn basil leaves. Spoon the tomato-eggplant mixture back into to the hollowed out skins. Top the filled eggplants with the freshly made breadcrumbs followed by the Pecorino cheese and bake the eggplant 10-15 minutes, until the filling is nice and warm.

♦  Suggested combinations
Serve the baked eggplants with a few purple olives and a salad of fresh green lettuce dressed with olive oil. In Naples this dish would be served with fresh mozzarella made of  raw buffalo milk. Baked eggplant goes well with stir-fryed red bell peppers.

♦  Note
The stems of fresh basil are flavorful and can be used to cook with. Rather than throwing them away, save them and put them in your next pot of water when cooking pasta, rice, potatoes or grains. Basil stems may be stewed with tomatoes or baked with fish in the oven.

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