II slept for two nights in a single bed in a tiny white room while visiting Tommaso’s family in Puglia. I could hear him sleeping, breathing heavily just twenty centimetres far from my bed. Yet, finding myself in a single bed, carefully made with freshly laundered linen, made me feel like a teenager again.
This brought bold summer dreams, fearless planning and the feeling that, once again, summer is here to stay and to make a revolution of a well-oiled routine, which always needs improvements, though.
Even if the fearlessness is that of a teenager, it is the thirty something woman I grew up in who took the wheel. While I was standing on the shore, watching kids fishing with a landing net as tall as themselves, salty water up to their knees, I began making a list of things I want to achieve during this summer, or when the next season will step in, with rustling leaves and crisp apples.
Mind you, it is a random list, as thoughts kept colliding in my mind as the waves I was looking at, mesmerised. There is a common thread, though: I strive to get better in a few selected fields, being it baking or choosing the right shoes. Yes, there are also frivolous but fundamental goals.
Do you remember my January words? I chose seasonality and craft, and these words keep coming back with different meanings and fields of application.
I am planning to buy my first cachemire pullover as soon as summer ends, and a good pair of leather shoes. Basically, I want to buy less, choosing high quality items which would last and which would make me feel happy. I’d love to finally dust off my French (pain au chocolat, mais oui!) and to perfect my wholewheat sourdough loaf and my pizza during this summer. Oh, and I’d love to plan our cooking workshops for 2019 within a few weeks, as to know what to expect. After many months of reddish hair, I feel the urge to have my chocolate brown back, I want to feel myself again, with my Mediterranean colours and curves.
I want to follow Stephen King’s advice about becoming a good writer.
“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.”
Then in his book, On Writing. A memoir of the craft, he adds that the strenuous reading and writing program he advocates – four to six hours a day, every day – will not seem strenuous if you really enjoy doing these things and have an aptitude for them. How humbling this thought is. He stresses once more the importance of practice and dedication. Summer, with its long days and short nights, seems like the right season to aim to this writing/reading program.
Therefore, it felt also like the right moment to bring back my cooking repertoire, adding a summer recipe made with eggplants.
It’s always handy to have another eggplant recipe in your cooking repertoire.
Last year I decided to share these recipes, staples of a Tuscan repertoire, analyzing the ingredients and the process with plenty of details so that, if you want, you’ll be able to include them into your collection and make Tuscan cooking your signature style.
After the crespelle alla fiorentina and the eggplant meatballs, after the ricotta and kale gnudi, after one of the desserts you loved the most, a humble Tuscan apple olive oil cake, it is time to introduce a side dish, baked eggplants with a breadcrumb topping.
Until a few years ago, it was a recurrent recipe in our summer routine, then it misteriously disappeared from our table. I brought it back during a cooking class, channeling my desire for something summery and quick, a side dish that could easily become a main course once served with a tomato salad.
Colours and textures of that once loved recipe surfaced along with the ingredients: eggplants of course, either the round purple ones or those thin long ones, then breadcrumbs, parsley, capers, garlic and some grated Parmigiano. There it was, my forgiving recipe, thick slices of eggplants topped with boldly flavoured breadcrumbs, roasted in the oven until golden and crisp.
- 1 eggplant, or 4 thin and long ones
- 3 tablespoons of breadcrumbs
- 2 tablespoons of grated Parmigiano Reggiano, or Pecorino Romano
- 1 tablespoon of finely chopped parsley
- 1 tablespoon of finely chopped capers, either brined or in salt
- 1 clove of garlic
- 4 tablespoons of water
- 2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
- A few turns of black pepper
- Preheat oven to 190°C (375°F, gas mark 5).
- Slice the eggplants into 1 cm thick slices. If you don’t want to measure each slice with a ruler, just slice the eggplant slightly thinner than one of your finger. Thicker slices will require a longer cooking, which could burn the breadcrumb topping. Thinner slices will just cook in a shorter time, but that could produce eggplants slightly too dry.
- Arrange them in a large oven tray lined with parchment paper.
- Mix in a bowl the breadcrumbs, the grated Parmigiano Reggiano, the finely chopped parsley and capers, a minced clove of garlic, water, extra virgin olive oil and pepper. Taste and check if it needs more salt: remember that capers and Parmigiano are already quite salty, so do not exaggerate.
- Sprinkle the breadcrumb topping all over the eggplant slices. Press gently with your fingers to make it adhere to the eggplants.
- Drizzle more extra virgin olive oil over the breadcrumb topping.
- Roast in the hot oven for about 30 – 35 minutes, until the breadcrumbs are golden brown and the eggplants are cooked through.
- Serve either hot or warmish, as a side dish or as a main course.
A few words about the ingredients
Even though you can use store bought breadcrumbs, making your own would reduce your waste of stale bread and provide you with rustic breadcrumbs, that are exactly what you are looking for to make these eggplants.
Capers and garlic give a punch to the eggplant topping: feel free to reduce or increase the amount according to your taste or to your pantry. Add also lemon zest for some extra freshness or a couple of anchovy fillets for good measure.
Parsley always works in a recipe like this, but you can substitute it with mint, basil or a bunch of fresh herbs from garden. As a rule of thumb, fresh herbs are always better. If using dry herbs, reduce their amount as to avoid an overpowering presence.
Extra virgin olive oil and water are equally important: the first will add richness and grant you a golden crust, while water will soak the breadcrumbs, avoiding them to burn in the oven.
As for the cheese, follow your imagination: I use either Parmigiano Reggiano or Pecorino Romano, or a mixture of both, but any hard cheese that you can grate could do.
What about onions?
Just imagine, onions au gratin, with breadcrumbs, capers and pecorino. If you already have our cookbook, From the Markets of Tuscany, you’ll find the recipe there, otherwise you can follow this recipe for eggplants and substitute them with thick slices of onions for a similar yet equally delicious recipe to bookmark, savour, love and make again. It is a tasty and seasonal side dish, but just as the aforementioned baked eggplants it can be served as a main course, accompanied by a potato salad.
The book will be finally available also in US and Canada from the 10th of July, while it is already available in Europe!
The baked eggplants in your cooking repertoire
After reading Cooking for Mr. Latte, by Amanda Hesser, I fell in love with the concept of having a cooking repertoire, and I decided to share here on the blog these recipes, staples of a Tuscan repertoire, analysing the ingredients and the process with plenty of details so that, if you want, you’ll be able to include them into your collection and make Tuscan cooking your signature style.
I chose these recipes not to impress, but to nourish, and because, using Amanda Hesser’s words, they would express my true sensibility as a cook, not my ambition.
All the recipes of my cooking repertoire
These are all the recipes I added so far into my cooking repertoire. This is an ever growing list, an always expanding collection which represents the way I live Tuscan food and cooking. Have you already tried something?
- Crespelle alla fiorentina. It is a handy recipe to learn as you can vary the filling according to the season: asparagus, artichokes and butternut squash are some of my favourites along with spinach and Swiss chard. You can mix the vegetables with fresh milky ricotta or add some béchamel into the filling. Cheese is a welcomed ingredient: Parmigiano Reggiano, Tuscan or Roman Pecorino, ricotta salata, or any other savoury aged cheese that you would happily grate over your pasta.
- Ricotta and Tuscan kale gnudi. There are two crucial ingredients here which can help you ease the anxiety while waiting for your gnudi to float tot the top: ricotta and cavolo nero, the Tuscan kale. Use a well-drained ricotta and squeeze very well the cooked kale. Once you make this, they will be your next success in the kitchen.
- Tuscan ragù. The Tuscan ragù is cooked with red wine, poured in little by little, and with tomato purée (just tomatoes that have been peeled and blended into a sauce), even better if it is your home made tomato purée, made during the heat of summer. To give more character to the ragù and have a more rustic sauce, sometimes I prefer to replace the passata with the same weight of peeled tomatoes, roughly crushed with my hands.
Main courses and side dishes
- Beef and eggplant meatballs. According to the season, you can substitute roasted eggplants with boiled potatoes, roasted butternut squash or breadcrumbs soaked in milk. I usually choose between grated Parmigiano Reggiano, aged Pecorino or Provolone to add flavour to the meat, sometimes adding brined capers, too. This time I opted for Parmigiano, along with a pinch of dry oregano to give a mediterranean touch.
- Stuffed turkey breast. One of the recipes that my mum taught me and that I immediately associate with Sunday lunches is the stuffed turkey breast, roasted on the stovetop and not in the oven. It is a humble dish, but it has an enormous potential.
- Italian potato salad. So a potato salad, which I had overlooked for years, becomes a distinguishing element of a menu, especially if you dress it with an Italian twist, with wild fennel, capers and olives. You can find the same aromas in a roasted pork loin with olive oil and wine, or in the baked eggplants that you are planing to serve as an appetiser.
- Apple olive oil cake. You can dress it up for a dinner party: serve a slice of warm apple cake with a scoop of vanilla gelato, a cloud of whipped cream or a drizzle of custard. Wrap in foil a slice of cake for a school break or an office break. Bake the olive oil apple cake on a Sunday and enjoy it for breakfast on the first days of the week with a strong coffee or a cappuccino.
- Coffee and vanilla pound cake. A versatile recipe to make a pound cake with the ingredients you have at hand, with a detailed explanation of the four macro categories of ingredients you can use, plus a recipe for a vanilla pound cake marbled with coffee, designed to wake you up in the morning. Use white farro flour, white sugar and dark cane sugar, Greek yogurt and butter.
- Ricotta crumb cake. I still have to decide if I prefer the cake warm from the oven, or after a few hours of fridge. This ricotta crumb cake is an unmissable summer cake, and I’ll let you decide when to serve it, if you are in hurry or armed by adamant patience.