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 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 burns 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 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 the real life it is not just a glass of bubbly prosecco at sunset or a garden party with girly clothes.
How I really love my job
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 that belongs to my cooking repertoire. I promised to share more trustworthy recipes and this is something that 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 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 that marries beautifully the slightly smoked eggplant taste.
- 4 medium eggplants
- Extra virgin olive oil
- 500 grams (1.1 lb) ground beef
- 200 grams (7 oz) fresh Italian pork sausages
- 1 tablespoon grated Parmigiano Reggiano, plus more for sprinkling over the eggplants
- 1 tablespoon grated Provolone
- A handful of fresh mint leaves
- A handful of basil leaves
- Fine sea salt
- Black pepper
- 1 beaten egg
- 2 tablespoons breadcrumbs
- 150 grams (5 oz) cherry tomatoes
- 1 small red onion
- Halve the eggplants lengthwise and empty them with a sharp knife. Use a spoon to scoop out their pulp. You should obtain a 5 mm thick shell.
- Preheat the oven to 200°C / 400°F 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 into a pan and add the minced garlic clove. Next, add the finely chopped eggplant pulp and sprinkle with salt: this will help the eggplants 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 pulp 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, 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, slice the red onion, and 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, topped with the 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 the main course. Choose a colourful 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.
More recipes with eggplants from the blog archive
- Eggplant parmigiana. This is my grandma’s recipe. Do not start an argument, please! This is not THE recipe for melanzane alla parmigiana – or parmigiana di melanzane, if you prefer – this is a recipe, the recipe I like, the recipe I ate during my childhood and the same recipe I have now, every now and then. It always comes with all the options: fried eggplants, not grilled, a generous sprinkling of Parmigiano, a mozzarella still dripping milk and beaten eggs. I still wonder why I eat my favourite food only once every two years…
- Baked eggplants. 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. So there it was, my forgiving recipe, thick slices of eggplants topped with boldly flavoured breadcrumbs, roasted in the oven until golden and crisp.
- Pasta with fried eggplants and mozzarella. Although I could easily eat fried eggplants as they are, such as peanuts, pulling out all my selfishness and strenuously defending my precious bowl of golden nuggets, this time I won this temptation and cooked a good bowl of pasta for my friends. How generous I was! If you overcome the desire for fried eggplants and manage to get to the next step, please try this pasta dish, so hearty and full of flavour. It is the perfect way to celebrate the last days of summer.
- I also made these grilled eggplant involtini.