I've begun to count down the days until my trip to Italy and I couldn't be happier. Unless, of course, it was finally departure day!
My trip is a few more weeks away, but I believe it's not too early to allow myself to begin dreaming about sights and smells and tastes that I love. And of new ones to discover. (Photo taken at the beautiful Genius Loci, near Bevagna)
I've been encouraged in this by a post today on author/actor Michael Tucker's blog, I always enjoy his writing, am a huge fan of his books, and today in particular, he had at me at the word "pecorino."
How I love pecorino. I can buy it in Italian delis near where I live, but it's not quite the same. Nothing here tastes quite like it does in Italy. Frankly, everything tastes better in Italy and the wine always seems so superior. Also, I never seem to get hangovers or upset tummies in Italy (except that unfortunate bout of food poisoning in Rome years ago. And that was almost worth it, to gross out the extremely unpleasant family on the other side of the paper-thin wall in my ill-chosen hotel.)
In Umbria, there will be such great food and wine, shared with treasured friends along the way. I hope I will again have the great pleasure of cooking with my dear friend Letizia in the mountains above Assisi. Her classes are such a pleasure because the recipes are always interesting but more importantly, Letizia always imparts lots of practical wisdom on ingredients and tradition and Italian history along with her recipes. Plus, it's a great joy to cook with others for a day, and then sit outside on her sunny terrace and savour the wonderful meal we've created.
One of the great recipes we tried last year, parmigiana di melanzane, was especially wonderful because, like so many classics, the original is far superior to the bizarre bastardizations and spinoffs that so often follow something great. (Like cottage cheese in lasagne -- what the hell is that? Or pineapple on pizza!)
Here is Letizia's version, from her wonderful blog:
I’m biting my nails here because I have so many things to tell you and if I don’t make a selection, I’ll probably never get to the recipe.
First of all the name. Parmigiana literally means “from Parma”. However, this recipe has been known as a tradition in Naples and Sicily since the early XIX century. Food historians have not come up with a conclusive explanation of why an iconic Southern dish has a Northern name. Some say that preparing vegetables alla parmigiana – i.e. in the way of Parma – refers to the use of layers interspersed with cheese and baked.
In origin, the eggplant parmigiana must not have not included Parmesan cheese which is now a standard ingredient. The Southerners used pecorino, provolone, caciocavallo, or mozzarella.
Who knows, may be the people from Parma invented the method and the Southerners adapted it to local ingredients.
I have inscribed this dish in the list of the mistreated foods of Italy. Too often I see impossibly fat recipes oozing cheap cheese, heavy bread-crumb coating and drowning in industrial amounts of oil. A gastroenterologist nightmare.
On the other hand I lost count of absurd adaptations to make it “light”. I admit it, it’s not a low-cal dish but if one wants dessert one has to have some sugar, right? So what’s the sense to use all sorts of alternatives which will taste and look like something else?
The eggplant parmigiana is a dish of fried eggplants baked with a little cheese and tomato sauce. That’s it, simple, vegetarian and fantastic if properly prepared.
2 large eggplants
300 gr / 8 oz fresh mozzarella sliced
1 400 gr / 12 oz tin peeled or diced San Marzano tomatoes
1 medium onion, diced
4 tablespoons grated Parmesan
10-12 fresh basil leaves
Prepare and fry and eggplants as explained here . Place in a colander for a few hours or possibly overnight to get read of excess oil. Grilled eggplants will not do as they are often too dry. If you don’t want to fry then bake the slices in a very hot oven with a little oil and water.
Heat 1 tablespoon EVO oil in a pan, add the onion, cover and saute over low heat until translucent. Stir in the tinned tomato and a sprig of basil, cover again and cook for approx. 10 min. Season lightly with salt and black pepper.
Preheat oven at 180 °C 7 350 °F.
Build up the parmigiana: spread two tablespoons of the sauce on the bottom of a ovenproof pan. Cover with a single layer of eggplant slices. Top with mozzarella, 2-3 basil leaves, 1 tablespoons of Parmesan and 2-3 tablespoons of sauce. Continue using all ingredients and finish with a layer of eggplant, sauce and Parmesan. Bake for 30 min until golden and bubbly. You must allow it to cool off for at least 10 min before serving but it’s best at room temperature. In the summer we have it as a main vegetarian meal with crusty bread to mop up the gorgeous juices.