Today’s blog post is aimed at solving the mystery of the melanzane…. Just what are aubergines?
A vegetable that when done right can be delicious, but when done wrong can be tasteless, bland and sometimes stodgy. I say vegetable…. It actually comes from the same family as a tomato, and is technically a fruit strangely enough! Just like tomatoes they grow on vines and have tiny edible seeds.
In Britain we call them aubergines the Americans call them eggplants, in Renaissance Italy they were known as mela insana “crazy apple” most likely because of it’s dark purple colour and perhaps because the original varieties were very bitter, but in modern day Italy they are known as melanzana.
Extremely popular in the south of Italy where it is used in many ways but probably most famous in Italy for two dishes; Melanzane alla Parmigiana, where it is sliced thinly, dipped in flour, fried and then layered with tomato, mozzarella, fresh basil, plenty of Parmesan cheese and oven baked (a vegetarian classic, very popular on our own menu – and definitely a southern Italian dish, unlike what Jamie Oliver says…), and Penne alla Norma, a Sicilian dish where aubergines are diced and then pan fried with tomatoes, fresh basil and either ricotta salata or pecorino cheese and served with pasta (our own modified version of this dish “Penne alla Siciliana” on our menu is loosely based on the original basic Sicilian recipe, but with the addition of smoked bacon, which combines very well with the aubergine, and the use of mozzarella cheese instead of the harder Italian cheeses which gives it a great stringy-ness when it melts out into the sauce – I think the use of mozzarella cheese in pasta with aubergines is more a Neapolitan thing as I had it like that many a time when I was visiting relatives down there over the years, and it’s as they served it in the restaurant I worked at in Naples)…. Give them both a try!
Introduced to the Mediterranean by Arabs in the early Middle Ages. These days in Britain they are available all year round, but on the markets in southern Italy you will find them from August through to October when they are in season. When buying aubergines choose ones that are heavy and firm, their skins should be smooth, shiny and their colour vivid. As well as being delicious there are a few health benefits too including lowering cholesterol and blood pressure and is also high in folic acid.
Never really eaten raw, it is quite versatile to cook with – and shouldn’t just be confined to vegetarian menus. It’s the main ingredient in Caponata (an Italian version of the vegetable ratatouille – perfect alongside meat or fish), but also delicious when very thinly sliced, grilled, left to cool down and marinated under oil with chilli, herbs and a touch of vinegar – often served like this alongside cured meats in Italy as an antipasto, or in salads.
All this has given me a huge aubergine craving, I’m off to steal myself a piece of Melanzane alla Parmigiana from the fridge here at The Italian in Romiley…