I am proud of how my hands look now.
Growing up I used to have small gracious hands, and my granddad Remigio would say: guarda che manine! Look at your hands. These hands have studied, they have not worked yet. He had worked for all his life as a bricklayer. When he retired he would spend the day in his quaint little vegetable patch just outside the city walls of San Gimignano. He was a small man, but his hands were strong, large and reassuring.
I would look at my hands, so used to leaf through books and to fill up whole notebooks in a tiny neat handwriting, thinking about how they would change in the future.
The first scar from a clumsy handling of a knife years ago felt like a rite of passage, the first oven burn as a stinging reminder of how passion can leave an indelible mark on your skin.
My hands have changed: they are stronger now, the skin is not as smooth as when I used to study for the whole day or work in an office 9 to 5. Wash, drain and repeat a hundred times a day leaves them dry. The stains of artichokes and coffee are hard to remove, though who cares when you are dipping biscotti into a double espresso for a tiramisu.
Some time ago my mum said: your hands have changed so much, these are hands who work. And an inner voice told me: nonno would be proud of you.
My whole body has changed to represent who I am now, though. My legs are thick, but they support me through endless hours in the kitchen, going up and the down the stairs every time I forget an ingredient in the pantry (and this happens more often than I would admit), my arms are robust, but they help me keep my camera steady even in the most unstable positions to capture a good photo.
I work often more than 10 hours a day, shifting from the kitchen counter to my computer: notebooks everywhere, flour fingerprints on camera and keyboard. I have been working hard to turn my love and curiosity for food into a profession, but sometimes it is exhausting, as real life it is not just a glass of bubbly prosecco at sunset or a garden party with girly clothes.
Yesterday, after 10 hours of intense work, a tour of markets and supermarkets to find all the required ingredients, four recipes developed and shot for a magazine, a vertiginous number of emails exchanged and a kitchen as messy as my teenage bedroom, I found myself in a moment of calm. Dirty pots all around me, a sultry studio after a few hours of hot oven and boiling water, plates with food perched on chairs and cupboards and a curious dog behind me, I was piling the ground meat onto the eggplant shells, pressing it gently with my hands. Lost in my thoughts and with a sudden smile on my face, I was dusting a mixture of breadcrumbs and parmigiano over the eggplants, when I heard my mum saying: oh darling, you must really love your job…
It wants my undivided attention most of the times, but it can be in the meantime so rewarding. And this tray of stuffed eggplants is just the perfect example.
Even though it had been a frantic day, the simple act of mixing the ground meat with my hands and the sensuous pleasure of squeezing it to make it homogeneous helped me to find a balance again. While I was cleaning the kitchen, I could smell the roasted eggplants and the sweet aroma of slightly burn onions tickling my nose and my appetite. Another day had passed: it hadn’t been glamorous, and my wild hair and stained t-shirt could prove it, but I was proud of the honest hard work and of that tray of stuffed eggplants which could satisfy our hunger the next day, after yet another cooking class.
Melanzane ripiene – Stuffed eggplants
This is another recipe which belongs to my cooking repertoire. I promised to share more trustworthy recipes and this is something which will frequently show up on the table throughout summer. Stuffed vegetables are a reassuring presence: they can be prepared in advance and baked in the oven while you are taking care of something else, from writing to playing with your children, from gardening to cleaning the mess you made during the day.
It is important to bake the empty eggplant shells before stuffing them because it avoids that awful squishy feeling of uncooked eggplants, something which for me comes as a close second to overcooked beef steak.
I chose a stuffing of ground beef and sausages, but you can also use the same amount of beef and pork ground meat. As for the cheese, after years of loyal use of pecorino, I just fell in love with the depth of flavour of an aged provolone, a fabulous spicy and biting cheese from the South of Italy which you should add to your top ten of things to try at least once in your lifetime.
Do not skip the tomatoes and the onions: even though you can perfectly bake stuffed eggplants in a tray with just a drizzle of olive oil, they become a caramelized sauce which marries beautifully the slightly smoked eggplant taste.
- 4 medium eggplants
- Extra virgin olive oil
- 500 g of ground beef
- 200 g of fresh Italian pork sausages
- 1 heaping tablespoon of grated Parmigiano Reggiano + extra for sprinkling over the eggplants
- 1 heaping tablespoon of grated Provolone
- A handful of fresh mint leaves
- A handful of basil leaves
- Black pepper
- 1 beaten egg
- 2 tablespoons of breadcrumbs
- 150 g of cherry tomatoes
- 1 small red onion
Halve the eggplants lengthwise and empty them with a sharp knife. Use a spoon to clean them into a 5 mm thick shell.
Preheat the oven to 200°C and arrange the eggplants on a tray lined with parchment paper. Brush them with extra virgin olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Bake for about 30 minutes, until soft and golden.
Pour a few tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil in a pan and add the minced garlic clove. Add also the finely chopped eggplant pulp and sprinkle with salt: this will help the eggplants to cook without burning as it will help them release some water.
Sauté on medium-low heat stirring often with a wooden spoon for about 10 minutes, until the eggplant is cooked through. Set aside.
In a bowl collect the ground beef and the sausage without the case. Add the cooked eggplant pulp, the Parmigiano Reggiano and the provolone, the chopped mint and basil leaves and mix thoroughly with your hands. Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper and add a beaten egg, then mix again.
Fill up the eggplant shells with the ground meat stuffing and sprinkle with breadcrumbs and grated Parmigiano reggiano.
Arrange the eggplant boats in a tray. Dice the cherry tomatoes and slice the red onion, then scatter them around the eggplants. Season with salt and drizzle with extra virgin olive oil.
Roast them in the hot oven for about 35 minutes until golden brown.
Serve the eggplants hot or warm with a scoop of caramelized cherry tomatoes and onions.
The day after the eggplants are even better, just warm them up in the oven.
A Summer Italian menu
Open up dinner with a fresh panzanella, then serve the stuffed eggplants as a main course. Choose a colorful tomato salad with a handful of basil leaves drizzled with extra virgin olive oil as a side dish, or make these stewed French beans.
If you have friends over, ask them to bring a gelato or take care of the dessert and make a jam crostata to close this summer meal with a sweet note.
Another way to use eggplants
I made this recipe for a client: grilled eggplant involtini, stuffed with cooked ham and cheese, and baked until golden. This is another summer favourite, which is even easier than the stuffed eggplants.
How not to mention melanzane alla parmigiana? I could dine with melanzane alla parmigiana every other day, here you find my reliable grandma’s recipe.