Introducing eggplant: Sicilians regard vegetable as 'meat of the earth'
We have successfully grown eggplants for many summers in Fargo and never cease to marvel at how this medium-sized, leafy plant can produce such a hearty vegetable.
Eggplant is a staple ingredient in many dishes in Sicily, where it is regarded as the "meat of the earth." Sicilians appreciate this vegetable not only for its gorgeous, deep purple color, but also for its flavor, versatility and substantial, meaty texture.
Eggplants are available year-round at our local grocery stores, but they are at their peak between August and October. If you don't have eggplants in your garden, our local farmers markets have had a great variety from which to choose. You can find the common, larger egg-shaped plants, but we have also seen Japanese eggplants, which are thin and long, similar in shape to a banana. Some markets have also had the round variety, as well as white eggplants.
When buying or picking eggplant, it's important to know that bigger doesn't always mean better. Look for a medium-sized fruit that is free of scars and bruises, with a shiny, vivid color and bright green stem. The texture should be firm and smooth. To test, gently press your thumb against the skin. If it springs back, the eggplant is ripe and ready to use. If an indentation remains, the eggplant is not done ripening and will have a bland, bitter taste.
One of Tony's favorite ways to feature eggplant is his family's recipe for Caponata, a sweet and sour blend of cooked vegetables, with a texture like a hearty relish. This traditional Sicilian dish is rich with color and is often served with seafood. We also use it as a topping over crusty bread, served either plain or toasted bruschetta-style.
Caponata is easy to make and can be served warm or cold. I think it's an ideal side dish to prepare a day in advance, as this allows the flavors to meld together, resulting in a more flavorful dish.
Eggplant isn't as common in our American diets, and if your palate isn't yet familiar with this vegetable, preparing it Parmigiana-style is a great way to introduce it into your repertoire.
We slice the eggplant into quarter-inch-thick rounds, leaving the peel on for added nutrition and flavor. Feel free, however, to remove the peel if you desire.
We dredge each slice in flour, a simple egg wash and breadcrumbs, making sure that each piece is evenly coated. For today's preparation Tony used Panko breadcrumbs, which have a wonderful, golden color and crispy texture.
Tony's mother prefers to use Italian-seasoned breadcrumbs - the kind you find in a can at the supermarket - and this is how I have always prepared it in our home. After trying this dish with both styles of breadcrumbs, I'm still a fan of Marianna's method, as I find the panko almost too crispy for the eggplant.
1 tablespoon minced garlic
½ large yellow onion, diced
3 large tomatoes, diced
1 large eggplant, peeled and diced
2 stalks celery, cut into ¼-inch half-moon pieces
2 tablespoons capers
½ large red pepper, diced
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 ounces red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon sugar
Salt and pepper to taste
Sauté the onion and garlic in olive oil over medium-low heat for about five minutes. Add all remaining ingredients, and cook over low heat for 30-45 minutes, stirring frequently until the vegetables are cooked all the way through but not mushy.
Taste the mixture and season with salt and pepper if desired. This dish can be served either warm or cold over crostini or toasted bruschetta.
Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to three days.
Home with the Lost Italian is a weekly column written by Sarah Nasello featuring recipes by her husband, Tony Nasello. They own Sarello's restaurant in Moorhead, Minn., and live in Fargo.