Growing up, my family always grew eggplant in the garden. When they were in season, they’d be everywhere. Beautiful purple shiny fruit, ready to be turned into many incredible, yet simple, Italian dishes. I would love Mum’s Pepperonata, usually made when we had a family barbecue and served on a large platter to share. It’s basically sauteed capsicum, onion and eggplant, flavoured with garlic, herbs and olive oil, and we would eat it warm or room temperature alongside grilled meat or cooked fresh Italian sausages. Any leftovers would be covered and kept in the fridge to make amazing sandwiches. Mum also liked to crumb her eggplant (as do I) and we would eat them just like that, or use them almost like pasta sheets and layer with bolognese sauce and cheese to make a kind off eggplant lasagne.
Nonna would make her famous eggplant polpette, or fritters. They were the best! A little mince, basil, garlic and parmesan mixed with a mash of cooked eggplant flesh, these were my childhood favourite. Nonna always had them in the fridge no matter if we told her we were dropping by or not (she had a sixth sense I’m sure) and I would greedily gobble down more than I care to remember. Cold, straight out of the fridge. Or she would add them to her amazing pizzas that my cousins and I would fight over. Everything Nonna cooked was simple, but so full of flavour. She’s 94 years old now, and sadly suffers from dementia and is in aged care. When I go to visit her, in my mind I can still see her standing at her old wood fired oven, stirring something, cooking cutlets or spooning the meatballs out of the sauce. I miss that. I miss those smells, that feeling we got when we visited. That there was always something delicious waiting for you, that you were loved, that you were part of this big, crazy, loud family where Nonna always had something good to eat. They are incredibly special memories.
We would always end up with more eggplant than anyone needed, so Nonna would preserve them for the rest of the year. A meticulous method that I need to revisit and perfect so I can share the recipe (Nonna always kept secrets when it came to cooking). Her pickled eggplant was truly incredible. Actually as I’m writing this I can almost taste it. The flesh was light, the skin removed, and plenty of herbs. So good. Nonna recycled everything, so I can still remember the eggplant preserves stored in all kinds of old jars, and it would always come to the table if we turned up at lunch time. A hunk of crusty bread, and maybe a few of her own marinated olives, and we would just scoop out some eggplant and tuck in. I can’t remember there ever not being a jar of eggplant in Nonna’s house.
It took me a while to get my Aussie husband to appreciate eggplant, having not grown up with the same food that I had. His family was more a meat and three veg family and he hated vegetables. To this day, I still can’t convince him to eat peas. They must have tormented him all his childhood (he’s told me stories of not being allowed to leave the table until they were gone, so there was loads of hiding peas in pockets, to the dog, or wherever they could be concealed so he could finish.). There are a lot of people I know who are still unsure of eggplant and how to cook it.
Eggplant can be cooked in so many ways, and I love it roasted, fried, pureed, mashed, cooked down in stews, or added to pasta, pizza and frittata. I love Middle Eastern flavours with eggplant too. But the easiest way to cook it is to grill it. It’s a healthy option too as eggplant is very thirsty and when you cook it with olive oil it really sucks it up, meaning you need to add more and more and it’s easy to lose track of how much oil end up in the dish. I like to slice my eggplant lengthways to a thickness of around 3mm. If the seeds in your eggplant are dark you need to salt it before cooking or it will be bitter. Most eggplants these days don’t need this process, so only salt them if the seeds are dark. Just layer the slices in a colander, sprinkling with salt as you go. Leave for 30 minutes, then wipe the salt and any moisture off.
To grill them, you can use a ridged grill pan on your stove-top or a barbecue. Drizzle a little olive oil over the slices and grill on high heat until black grill lines appear and the flesh is tender. Set aside. I like to layer them in a container, sprinkling with a little garlic, salt, pepper, dried oregano and chilli as I go. A little balsamic vinegar and olive oil as your layer will add flavour. You can then seal it up and keep in the fridge for a week. Or eat alongside any meat dish, or serve as antipasti with crusty bread. It’s not quite Nonna’s preserves, but it’s very delicious.
If you want to make a really impressive meal out of your grilled eggplant, try this Eggplant Involtini recipe from my book Food for Sharing Italian Style. Involtini meaning “little roll” which is what these are. Grilled eggplant slices rolled around a beautiful herbed ricotta filling, topped with cheese and baked in tomato sauce. It is one of my favourites, and it’s meat free. I often serve this dish when I cater for events as it’s wholesome enough for vegetarians and the meat eaters love to eat it too. As a shared side dish it pairs really well with lamb, and we often eat this with slow cooked lamb shoulder.
To make this dish, start by making the Basic Tomato Sauce. Click here for the recipe. Or maybe you’ve already got some you made earlier. Then mix up the ricotta filling so it’s ready to go (the full recipe for this dish follows).
Grill your eggplant slices and set aside. Now it’s all about assembly. It’s a bit fiddly but not difficult. Spoon enough sauce into your baking dish to cover the bottom. Working with one eggplant slice at a time, place a spoonful of ricotta filling onto the widest end. Yes, hands are the best utensils to use here.
Now roll the eggplant over the filling, and keep rolling until you get to the end and have a little log. Be delicate, you don’t want to press the filling out.
Place into your baking dish. Repeat until all the slices are now little involtini.
Top with more sauce and sprinkle with cheese. You can prepare up to this point in advance and refrigerate until you’re ready to cook if you like.
Once it’s baked, the eggplant will be dark, sauce bubbly and cheese melted. Yum.
Use a large spoon or a spatula to serve a few involtini to each person, or just sit it in the middle of the table to share. I like to grate extra parmesan over mine, my husband likes to add chilli.
If you’ve got any leftovers, this dish keeps well for a few days in the fridge. Just warm it up in the oven, or give it a quick burst in the microwave.
I promise if you’re not an eggplant eater, this dish will change your mind! Try it and let me know how it turns out!
- 3 large Mediterranean eggplant
- olive oil
- 250 g ricotta, drained
- 1 egg, lightly beaten
- small handful of fresh basil, finely chopped
- 3 tbsp fresh flat leaf parsley, finely chopped
- 4 tbsp grated parmesan
- freshly ground black pepper
- 2½ cups Basic Tomato Sauce
- 100 g cheddar cheese,grated
- handful of extra fresh basil, chopped, to serve
- Cut the eggplant lengthways into 3 - 5mm thick slices.
- Heat a grill pan or barbecue over high heat. Drizzle the eggplant slices with olive oil and cook for 2 minutes per side, or until charred and tender. Set aside.
- Preheat your oven to 180°C.
- Mix the ricotta, egg, basil, parsley and parmesan together in a bowl.Season with a little salt and pepper to taste.
- Place a tablespoon of the mixture onto the base of each eggplant slice. Roll up to enclose.
- Pour enough tomato sauce into a deep baking dish to cover the bottom. Lay the eggplant rolls on top of the sauce in a single layer. Spoon a little more sauce over the top and sprinkle with grated cheese.
- Bake for 15–20 minutes, or until the cheese is melted. Drizzle with a little olive oil and scatter with fresh basil and serve.