Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Get Yourselves Egg-Cited about Eggplants!

Melanzane al Vapore & Gratinate alla Menta & Pomodoro
Steamed & Baked Eggplant with Mint & Tomato

As you know- I am Sicilian, so I always get excited about eating eggplant- it is one of my favorite ingredients! Especially if they are these beautiful, round, purple ones- the kind we prefer back in "The Old Country" and the kind that I am lucky enough to get directly from the source from Nina at the Market Hall here in Frankfurt... it is good to have those Sicilian connections!

But wherever yours come from, and whatever you normally would do with them, give this here preparation a try and you may well find you have a new favorite on your hands! Full of flavor, low on fat, using just a few very basic ingredients, you can have this wonderful dish put together in less than an hour... and if that little detail didn't win you over, then I guess I will have to hope the the following pictures will!

So, apart from some bread crumbs, a little olive oil and some salt and pepper, in the picture above you can see the ingredients you are going to need to make this... encouraging, isn't it? The only work you are going to have to do is to peel the eggplant, cut it into finger-thick slices, then halve them, salt them and pop them into a saucepan, on a steam-rack and let them steam for 10 minutes.

In the meantime, finely chop one shallot, a handful each of parsley and mint, and then slice up 7-8 cherry tomatoes. Add about the same amount in volume of bread crumbs to these ingredients and about half the volume in grated hard cheese. I used Pecorino this evening, but Parmesan, Grana, or any other you may prefer would be just fine too.

Stir the herbs, bread crumbs, tomatoes and cheese together well, season with salt and pepper, drizzle lightly with olive oil- and get those eggplant slices out of the steamer already! I told you they will only need 10 minutes! Seriously, be careful not to over-cook them- you want them to be softened and to be turning slightly translucent, but don't let them steam for more than 10 minutes or they will become too fragile to work with and also lose too much consistency- the oven needs to do its part in this recipe too!

Speaking of which- at this point at the latest, you can turn your oven on to full power to get it hot and ready to go... as soon as you have done the fun part and layered up the goodies for baking!

Simply lay out the eggplant and give it a generous coating of the herb, tomato and crumb mixture. Add a little extra drizzle of olive oil and a hint more salt and pepper if you like, but build up the layers this way, just loosely stacked, as the moisture in the eggplant and tomatoes will turn to steam and let everything fall together nicely if it has room- and if you squeeze all of those air-pockets out... it just won't work so well! 

Fill up your baking dish and be generous with those bread crumbs and skimpy on the cheese and oil... the mix should look roughly the way it does in the image above. Trust me. The secret to good food is balance. Eggplant is a vegetable (actually, it is more likely classified as a fruit I would imagine), that loves to soak up moisture and flavor... and if said moisture is oil, the result is just going to be oily and that is also the main flavor you will taste. Eww! Don't do it! This way- you will get a lovely, rich, mint, tomato and savory cheese flavor, padded out with the crumbs and then eventually, topped off with a crispy crust... so yes, a light extra drizzle of oil on the topmost layer is ok ;-)

Cover the dish with foil and pop it into the oven at 400°F for 20 minutes. After 20 minutes, remove the foil and let it bake for a further 5 minutes without... then give it a final 2-3 minutes under the broiler to make it come out looking like... this!

Pretty wonderful, huh? This is the way that I think a baked eggplant dish should look AND taste! Crispy on top and light and creamy, but not in the slightest greasy and heavy underneath. This is not a "mac and cheese" kind of casserole dish- nothing as heavy-handed as that. It is a lighter but tastier, more delicate but more exciting dish by far. Again, you will need to trust me on this... unless you happen to be Sicilian- in which case, you can probably very well imagine how it tastes without any further explanation!

The great thing is, that as light as this dish is and as little cheese and bread crumbs as it requires, it becomes a lovely firm consistency that is easy to scoop up and serve. And as pretty as it is, all it needs, if anything at all, is a little sprig of mint, just to set-off the colors... and you are good to go! 

This would make a lovely side dish, an exquisite starter, as it is so light... or if you indulge in the full portion as I did, a satisfying but not heavy, warming and totally comforting Vegetarian Winter dish! Holy-moly! I have just realized even my Vegan friends can eat this one! Haha!

So this is the final shot I am leaving you with... if this one doesn't do it for you... nothing will! Although I have to admit... I am pretty confident this is the deal-maker! Now go make it and enjoy! Buon Appetito!

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