Tag: Sicily

Parmigiana di Melanzane

Think of lasagna, replace the pasta sheets with slices of fried eggplant and you have a Parmigiana di Melanzane. It took me many years to finally eat this very frugal, very simple and very delicious Italian home cooking gem and it took me even longer to finally give it a go in my own kitchen.

I have to thank the tiny Sicilian island that I mentioned earlier in May, when I wrote about Stuffed Sardines. This little rock in the Mediterranean rewards me with the best parmigiana for lunch, at a little cafe at the piazza where I sip chilled Chinotto and let my fork sink into silky layers of soft eggplant, creamy cheese and fruity tomato sauce. The island reminds me over and over again how precious good produce is, what a gift tasty vegetables are and how little I have to add as a cook when I allow the vegetables to show their humble inherent qualities.

After writing two cookbooks and sharing hundreds of recipes over the past seven years, I was worried that tiredness might keep me tethered to my minimalist cooking trip but it turns out that the opposite is true. I’m not tired of experimenting, but maybe more than ever I truly and fully appreciate when a tomato, a zucchini or a bell pepper are at their peak and simply taste good. When they taste so good that I don’t even want to cook them, my tastebuds have an epiphany. It’s not the complex layering in a dish, or the newly discovered combination of flavours that have rarely been combined before, but it is the purest taste of good produce melting in my mouth that makes me the happiest muncher in the world.

On this tiny Sicilian island that I love so much I pick my fruit and vegetables straight from the fields surrounding the house where we live. My early morning walks, to pick what I need for the day before the hot summer sun hits fruit, flowers and leaves, before the plants daily struggle for light, shade and water begins, have taught me more about food in the past few years than any cookbook or food show. Plants follow simple rules, they obey a rhythm. To work – as a cook – with that rhythm and not against it, creates utmost pleasure.

This year, northern Sicily and its surrounding islands didn’t have enough rain. Lentils didn’t grow, instead their plants dried out on the fields, lemons stayed tiny, the fruits barely having any juice, but on the other side pomodori, tomatoes, grew so abundantly that our friends who have their own fields couldn’t keep up collecting and using them. So they gathered one day to make passata, blanched, pureed and strained tomatoes turned into the purest sauce, and bottled their ‘red gold’ for the colder months to come. If nature gives them tomatoes abundantly, they turn them into a tomato feast. Maybe next year it will be lentils, who knows, but it will definitely reflect in their cooking.

So my friend Pietro gave me a bottle of his deep red passata and although I would have loved to just drink it, I decided to let the sun-kissed concentrated tomato juices shine in a dish that I enjoy so much when I’m in Sicily: I decided to cook my first Parmigiana di Melanzane. This dish is so simple yet there are a million recipes, tricks and variations and every Italian will say that their mamma definitely makes the best. And every one of them is right because there isn’t just one recipe that is the best but there is one rule that almost every Italian follows with verve and passion: the ingredients need to be of excellent quality.

You won’t need many ingredients for a parmigiana but make sure to use nice, plump eggplants, good fior di latte or mozzarella and Parmesan and most importantly: invest in the best passata you can possibly find. It’s also fine to make a tomato sauce from scratch, using tinned or fresh tomatoes and your favoured seasoning, but for this dish, a simple sauce made of Italian passata, garlic, a dash of olive oil, basil, salt and pepper hits the spot. You don’t want a sauce that’s too dominant as it’s only going to play with humble fried eggplants and mainly mild cheese. It’s not a sauce I would use for pasta, it’s subtle and also more liquid than my usual red sauce, but it bathes the eggplant in the perfect summer-ripe fruitiness. This simple sauce with its deep taste of Mediterranean tomatoes is what makes or breaks your parmigiana.

My recipe is for 4 to 5 people, we enjoyed it over two days, hot, warm and cold, but I wished I had doubled the recipe!

Parmigiana di Melanzane

Serves 4 to 5

  • 1.2 kg / 2 2/3 pounds eggplants, cut lengthwise into 5mm / 0.2″ thick slices
  • Fine or flaky sea salt
  • 3 fior di latte or mozzarella (each 125g / 4.5 ounces)
  • Olive oil
  • 2 large cloves garlic, crushed
  • About 750ml / 3 1/4 cups Italian passata di pomodoro (if your passata isn’t very tasty, use about 1l / 4 1/4 cups passata, bring it to a boil and reduce until you have the desired amount. Alternatively: Make the same amount of sauce with tinned or fresh tomatoes)
  • 1 large handful fresh basil leaves, roughly chopped
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • Vegetable oil, for frying
  • 60g / 2 ounces Parmesan (preferably aged), finely grated

Spread the eggplant slices on cooling racks, generously sprinkle with salt, gently rubbing the eggplants with the salt, then flip and sprinkle the other side with salt. Let the eggplants sit for about 1 hour then rinse with cold water and pat dry with kitchen paper.

Place the fior di latte (or mozzarella) in a colander, let sit for 1 hour then cut into small cubes.

In a large pot, heat a splash of olive oil over medium heat, add the garlic and cook for about 2 minutes or until golden. Add the passata and bring to a boil. Stir in the basil and season to taste with salt and pepper (mind that the Parmesan will also add saltiness to the final dish!); immediately remove the sauce from the heat and set aside.

Preheat the oven to 200°C / 400°F and grease a roughly 20x30cm / 8×12″ baking dish with a little olive oil.

In a large heavy pan, over high heat, heat enough vegetable oil to come up the side of the pan about 1.25cm / 0.5″. When the oil is sizzling hot, fry the eggplant slices in batches, arranging them side by side and turning them once, for about 30-60 seconds or until golden but not dark (see picture below). Spread and drain the fried eggplant on kitchen paper and continue frying the remaining eggplant slices.

Arrange a layer of eggplant slices in the prepared baking dish, spreading them side by side, then season with a little (!) salt and pepper, sprinkle with some of the fior di latte and Parmesan and drizzle with some of the sauce. Repeat to make more layers (about 4 layers total), finishing the last layer with cheese and sauce. Bake for about 40 minutes or until bubbly then turn off the oven, tilt or open the oven door and let the parmigiana sit in the oven for 10 minutes or even for 1 hour or longer to let it soak the juices (I let mine sit in the oven for 2 hours, temperature and texture were just right when we ate it). Enjoy the parmigiana warm but not hot straight out of the oven; we even had some cold for breakfast.

Sicily and Stuffed Sardines

Two years ago we visited a tiny Sicilian island. It was so small that we either walked, rode our bikes or swam to get around. But most of the time we did nothing, just laid on the rocks at the beach or in the garden, staring into the sky, amazed by how beautiful the world is. We only used a car when we arrived to get to the little farm where we stayed, a sturdy stone building tucked in between fig trees, hibiscus and oleander; and to go back to the harbor at the end of our trip, speechless and sad to leave our piece of heaven on earth. The island is so secluded and so special to us that I had to promise my man that I would never write about it or tell anyone where it is.

In the past couple months I’ve been thinking a lot about our tiny island in the Mediterranean, dreaming of a place that feels safe and makes me happy. I’m not allowed to write about its location, however I can write about the food we indulged in day after day. Our house was part of an organic farm and we could pick all the fruit and veg we wanted to eat. The juiciest tomatoes, sweet bell peppers, soft figs, zucchini, eggplant … As soon as I fell out of bed I’d walk – still in my pyjamas – through the field to pick zucchini flowers and fry them for breakfast. We enjoyed the farm’s olive oil and wine basically from tap and although there wasn’t really the need to, we also made use of the island’s fantastic restaurants and bars abundantly. We ate out every day and said to ourselves if we only had to eat Sicilian food for the rest of our life we’d live a happy life.

Dinners were spectacular: the freshest grilled fish and sun showered vegetables, raw prawn carpaccio, lobster, pasta, risotto and nana’s almond cake and bay leaf schnaps for dessert. Unforgettable, there’s no doubt. But our little luncheons at the piazza, at a rustic bar where mamma herself cooked all morning and laid out her delicious work on the counter by noon, this was the food that melted my heart. Casseroles, lasagna, tarts, focaccia and stuffed vegetables, fish and saltimbocca, framed by hearty salads made with legumes. We went there almost every day, pretending to go just for an espresso before snorkeling but always ordering more plates than we could fit on our round bistro table. It was strategically placed in the shade of a large tree, close enough to mamma’s kitchen to order more food (and wine) but still in the middle of the airy piazza to follow the village’s late morning life. A scene of true beauty.

So here, at this unimposing cozy bar, I enjoyed my first Sicilian stuffed sardines. The fish filets were wrapped around a filling made of breadcrumbs, orange zest, crumbled bay leaves, pine nuts, raisins, capers, fresh oregano and thyme. The whole bold and colorful culinary orchestra that Sicily’s cuisine is famous for in one single bite. Don’t ask why but it took me two years to recreate this recipe in my own kitchen. Last Saturday I was in the mood for a Sicilian lunch, so I drove to the fishmonger. Our wine was crisp and fruity and the recipe worked out perfectly – I only should have bought more fish. It was a little feast for two. We had five stuffed sardines, just enough for a lunch nibble, for a main I’d go for ten sardines for two people (recipe below). Anyway, get your loved one(s) into the kitchen, cool your favorite white wine, start the oven, pull out the dusty Adriano Celentano records and pretend you’re in Sicily!

Meike xxx

Sicilian Stuffed Sardines

Serves 2 as a main or 3-4 as a starter

You can enjoy stuffed sardines warm from the oven or at room temperature

  • 10 whole sardines, gutted and cleaned (about 800g / 1 3/4 pounds)
  • 2 tablespoons raisins
  • Olive oil
  • 85g / 3 ounces breadcrumbs
  • 2 tablespoons pine nuts
  • 2 tablespoons finely grated pecorino
  • 2 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme leaves
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons chopped fresh oregano or marjoram leaves
  • 2 teaspoons freshly grated orange zest
  • 2 tablespoons freshly squeezed orange juice
  • 6 small (or 3 large) bay leaves, finely crumbled (or ground with a mortar and pestle)
  • 2 teaspoons capers, chopped
  • 1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
  • Ground pepper
  • 20 wooden tooth picks

Preheat the oven to 200°C / 400°F. Grease a medium baking dish with olive oil.

Cut off and discard the heads of the sardines. To butterfly the sardines, spread and lay them cut-side (belly-side) down on a cutting board and, using your hand, push the back down gently (see 2nd picture from the top, right). Flip the sardines, gently pull out the backbone and cut the bone at the tail but don’t remove the tail; discard the backbone. Spread the sardines skin-side down on the cutting board.

In a small bowl, soak the raisins in hot water for about 5 minutes then drain.

In a medium, heavy pan, heat a splash of olive oil over medium-high heat and roast the breadcrumbs, stirring, for about 2 minutes or until golden and crispy. Push the breadcrumbs to the sides, add the pine nuts and roast, stirring, for 1 minute. Transfer the breadcrumbs and pine nuts to a medium bowl and add the raisins, pecorino, garlic, thyme, oregano, orange zest, orange juice, bay leaves, capers, 2 tablespoons of olive oil and the salt and season to taste with pepper. Mix well with your hands, rubbing the mixture between your fingers.

Season the sardines with a little salt and pepper. Divide the filling among the sardines, pushing the filling down gently with the back side of a tablespoon. Gently roll up the sardines towards the tail and fix the roll with 2 tooth picks (see pictures below). Arrange the sardines, side by side and tail up, in the prepared baking dish, drizzle with a little olive oil, sprinkle with the remaining filling in case any is left, then season with a little salt and pepper and bake for 20 minutes. Let the sardines cool for a few minutes and enjoy warm or wait a little longer and serve at room temperature. Enjoy with good bread (drizzled with good olive oil), a simple green salad and a glass of white wine.

Sicilian Memories with my Tangerine Jam

Tangerine Jam

Last year I went to Sicily for the first time in my life. We stayed at a beautiful farm close to Noto located in soft hills between lemon, orange and tangerine trees. Every morning we got the most delicious breakfast served under pine trees with the old city of Noto in the distance. Freshly baked cakes, fruit, white bread fried in olive oil together with oregano (from the farm as well, the best oregano in the world!), it was heaven!

One of my many breakfast discoveries was a jam which looked like the golden sun and tasted so sweet and refreshing, with a hint of sourness and bitterness. Just divine!  This jam was made of tangerines and I think I must have emptied jars of it during our holiday. As soon as I got home and tangerines were available I made my own! This year, I have to refill my pantry with my Sicilian jam.

Tangerine Jam

 Sicilian Tangerine Jam

For 4 medium sized jam jars you need

organic tangerines, rinsed, 1200g / 2 1/2 pounds
sugar 600g / 1 1/4 pounds
juice and seeds of 2 lemons
spirit to sterilise the rims of the jars

Sterilise the 4 jam jars in boiling water for 5 minutes.

Fill a large pan with water and bring to the boil. Put the tangerines in the water and let them boil for 20 minutes. Take the tangerines out and keep some of the water.

Quarter the cooked tangerines (don’t peel them, you use the whole tangerine!), take out their seeds and put them aside. Cut the lemons in half and keep their seeds as well. Heat up some of the tangerine cooking water in a small pan (it should come up to 2cm / 3/4″), add the lemon and tangerine seeds and let them cook for 5 minutes.

Shred the quartered tangerines in a food processor for a few seconds. Put them in a large pan, add the sugar, the lemon juice and the water used to boil the seeds. Bring to the boil gently (the sugar has to dissolve first) and boil everything for 18-20 minutes.

Dip the rim of your jars in the spirit and wash out the lids of the jars with the alcohol as well. Fill your jars with the jam and close well immediately.

Let the jars cool off and enjoy their amazing color – and the taste after a day or two as the jam has to sit a bit!

Tangerine Jam