Aubergines – or eggplants for our American friends – are a prominent vegetable in Calabrian cuisine. In my childhood and youth hardly a day would go by without melanzane on our dining table. In winter we would eat those laboriously prepared for preservation by my mother during September/October. In summer she would cook them freshly on a daily basis. This very versatile vegetable can be prepared in many ways and used as a main meal or side vegetable or in canapés for aperitifs. The latter is how I now like to use and serve one of my favourite dishes: melanzane alla calabrese. I should now confess that the name is one I attributed to this dish, which was – in my Calabrese youth – known as melanzane salate, salted aubergines. The following recipe will make clear the origin of the traditional name.
Remove the stalk, and about half of the peel in random strips. Slice the melanzane in half, cross-wise, and then in triangular segments. You will end up with four segments for the top, thinner part and six for the bottom part. Put them in plenty of boiling water (unsalted) and cook for about ten minutes. You should be able to pass the fork through easily but do not let them become too mushy. Drain them in a colander, preferably one with a flat bottom. The idea from now on is to remove as much as possible of the water absorbed by the aubergines in the boiling process. To achieve this, cover them with a clean cloth. I keep a special one for this operation. Put a weight on top such as a pan full of water. I usually leave them on my sink to drain overnight. Now, the choice of pan/weight is tricky and relates to the size and shape of the colander. When the pan of water is put on top of the cloth covering the aubergines, it should push them down to squeeze away the liquid. If it is too large it will just sit on the side of the colander without exercising pressure on the aubergines. If it is too small some aubergines will be squeezed out to the sides and the water will remain within them.
I can see you are giving up on this one. Do not; help is at hand, more specifically … in your hands! Thoroughly wash your hands, take several aubergine pieces between them and squeeze the water out. When most of the water has been drained, by whatever method, place the aubergines on a dish and give them plenty of salt, oil, oregano and garlic. Some chili goes nicely as well. When I use the aubergines to make appetizers for aperitifs or antipasti, I place a small amount of melanzane on a thin slice of baguette, ciabatta or brown bread and serve with chilled, white wine. Any extra aubergines can be served cold, as a side vegetable. Store them in your fridge for no more than three days. They need turning and mixing occasionally to make sure that the oil does not sit at the bottom but is spread to all the aubergines. Enjoy making them and eating them wherever you are!
More Calabrian recipes particularly of vegetables are in my memoir, By the Olive Groves, which can be ordered from the I.B.Tauris website here.
Grazia Ietto Gillies was born in Calabria in 1939 and spent the first ten years of her life in Delianuova, a small town in the Aspromonte mountains. She moved to Rome with her family in 1950 and has lived in London since 1971. She has worked and published widely as an academic economist. She has recently branched into literary writing.