Gourmet secrets: Bring on the brinjal - Sicilian style!
The aubergine or baingan has had poor press but lends itself to a host of Indian, Middle Eastern and Mediterranean dishes and makes for a terrific fried snack!Updated: Mar 16, 2019 23:54 IST
I visited Sicily many moons ago and so my memories are scant. What I do recollect is an amazing fish market in Palermo with fresh anchovies packed in jars with coarse sea salt and the freshest tuna I had ever seen. Restaurants displayed impressive dessert trolleys; canolo filled with soft creamy ricotta cheese and cassata with bright coloured candied fruit. Pantelleria, an island half way between Sicily and Tunisia, produces a stunning dessert wine or passito, which is still on my “to buy” list every time I visit Italy.
Meeting chef Agostino d’Angelo who is now the executive chef of the stunning restaurant Oliviero at the Belmond Villa Sant’Andrea in Taormina, brought it all back. I talked with him while he was doing a week-long festival at Vetro in Mumbai, about baked ricotta cheese an essential ingredient in pasta Norma. He hand-carried it all the way from Sicily! The conversation continued with the Sicilian obsession with vegetables, in particular aubergine, which he uses in several dishes on the menu: the maccheroni alla Norma with tomato sauce, fried aubergines and dried baked ricotta is named after Bellini’s opera of the same name.
Bellini was from Sicily and is reported to have loved pasta in this way; caponata, a tangy aubergine relish and the all time favourite Parmigiana di melanzane, slices of fried aubergine layered with thick tomato paste, basil and baked with Parmesan on top. “Most people think Parmigiana refers to the cheese Parmigiano, but in fact it refers to the movable horizontal window slats or louvres in old Sicilian houses called “parmiciana,” which look like layers, Agostino informs me.
As a child, Agostino learnt the secrets of home-cooking from his grandmother with whom he used to spend hours making couscous and his uncle in his trattoria. Couscous he tells me is very much part of Sicilian cuisine since the island is so near Tunisia. This certainly explains his use of big, bold flavours. He then left Italy for some international experience, mainly in London, and returned to his native Sicily a couple of years ago to head this restaurant where taste meets sophisticated presentation in an enchanting setting overlooking the sea.
The history of the setting is also pretty famous. In the late 19th century an Englishman and his family built their dream villa on the Bay of Mazzarò in Taormina, which still runs from Catania around the base of Mount Etna. The villa, transformed into a hotel after the Second World War, later passed to their great grandson, Richard Manley. From the 1960s onwards the beautiful beachside hideaway, with its shaded terrace and decadent piano bar, attracted the cream of Sicilian society as well as famous faces from further afield. Richard Manley recalls the time the film director Francis Ford Coppola contacted him in 1971 while filming scenes for The Godfather. He stayed at the hotel for six weeks with several members of the cast, including Al Pacino. So enamoured was Coppola that he returned for the sequel and threequel and loved to invite other members of the crew to dine with him, cooking spaghetti al pomodoro himself.
Passing on the legacy
Here are two of Agostino’s famous aubergine recipes. Not everybody’s cup of tea, aubergine, eggplant or brinjal, whatever you call it, has had a pretty poor press. People consider them slimy and unappetising. Like mushrooms, I feel they are underrated and can easily be a substitute to meat in terms of texture and flavour. Be warned, like mushrooms, they do soak up a hell of a lot of oil when fried. They lend themselves to a host of Indian, Middle Eastern and Mediterranean dishes and make a terrific fried snack. We tend to associate the aubergine with Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cookery, but it was cultivated in very early times in India and was mentioned in fifth-century books in China, where it is still a popular vegetable. The Arabs carried it to Spain and in the 13th century it spread to Northern Europe and then to Italy by traders from Pisa, Genoa and Venice. At first it was a curiosity, but became more widely known by the 16th century.
Caponata, which is one of the Sicily’s most famous appetiser has controversial origins. There are several legends around the name caponata. It first appeared in a Sicilian etymology of 1709. Some believe it derives from the Greek verb capto (“cut”); others affirm that the term descends from the Spanish word “caponada” that describes a dish composed of several ingredients. It is certain that, like many other Sicilian recipes, the preparation of caponata has been strongly influenced by the several nationalities that passed through the island over the centuries. The sweet and sour taste of agrodolce sauce are probably Arab traditionally.
Ingredients (Serves 10 )
2 onions (medium size)
150g pitted green olives
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 glass of water
Half cup of white vinegar
4 fresh basil leaves
0.5 ltrs sunflower oil
Extra-virgin olive oil
Wash the olives and remove the stones. Peel the onions and cut them into slices. Cut the celery into small cubes. Blanch all the ingredients in salted water for a few minutes and drain. Roast all the ingredients in a pot with a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil. Add the tomato paste and mix. Pour the water and the vinegar and add the sugar. Cook on a slow heat for approx. 30 minutes. Take it off the heat and add the fresh basil leaves. Set aside and let it cool at room temperature.
Peel the aubergines, cut them into cubes of about 1.5cm and fry them in hot sunflower oil until they are gold and crispy. Drain and set them aside. Once cooled at room temperature, add the aubergines to the other ingredients previously cooked.
Ingredients (Serves 8)
1.4 lt tomato sauce or passata (recipe below)
150g Parmesan cheese
1 small onion
5 fresh basil leaves
Extra-virgin olive oil
Salt to taste
0.5lt peanut oil
Wash and cut the aubergines along the vertical side to obtain slices of a height of about 5mm. Put the slices in a strainer covering them with some coarse salt and put a weight on top in order to press the aubergines and let them clean out their bitter water for about one hour.
Peel and thinly slice the onion and sauté in a pan with a drizzle of olive oil for a few minutes. Add the tomato sauce and cook for 45 minutes on a slow heat, pouring some water a bit at a time if necessary. Add the minced basil leaves and season with salt to taste.
Pour the peanut oil in a large pan and heat on a medium heat until it reaches the temperature of 170°C. Wash the aubergines and fry each slice for two to three minutes. Keep them apart on absorbent tissues to remove the excess oil.
In an oven pan, place some tomato sauce previously prepared as a base and lay on top a layer of fried aubergines. Add some Parmesan cheese and cover with tomato sauce. Repeat the procedure four or five times in order to create several layers and cover the last one with the remaining tomato sauce and Parmesan cheese. Cook the parmigiana in oven at 180° for 20 minutes. Before serving, let the parmigiana cool for a few minutes at room temperature.
Ingredients for tomato sauce (passata)
1 clove of garlic
Salt to taste
4 Basil leaves
Extra-virgin olive oil
Wash the tomatoes and blanch them for about one minute in boiling water. Strain, cool and peel them. Place the whole, peeled onion in a pan with the clove of garlic, unpeeled and lightly squashed, and sauté them with a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil. Add the basil leaves and the tomatoes. Cook on a slow heat for approx. 40 minutes. Remove the onion, garlic and basil from the sauce. Take the tomatoes from the pan, blend them and add them back in. Keep on cooking for 15 minutes, seasoning with salt.
Culinary expert and explorer Karen Anand has been writing extensively on the subject of food and wine for 30 years. Apart from having her own brand of gourmet food products, she has anchored top rated TV shows, run a successful chain of food stores, founded the hugely successful Farmers Markets, and worked as restaurant consultant for international projects, among other things. Her latest passion is food tours, a totally curated experience which Karen herself accompanies, the first of which was to Italy.
This is a fortnightly column. The next column will appear on March 31.
From HT Brunch, March 17, 2019
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First Published: Mar 16, 2019 22:55 IST