Monday, November 10, 2014

Domenica Marchetti's Eggplant and Porcini "Meatballs" in Tomato Sauce

If you are like me my travels (whether it be to the neighbouring town or across the pond) are centred around food experiences. In speaking with friends I am certain I am not the only one who relives life's most intimate details through the sight, smell and taste of particular foods. Each of us seems to have a favourite or, in some cases, a most hated dish with which they can recall a particular moment of their lives. I am far more likely to associate a place with the stone cold and lumpy soup I had at the local pub or the shatteringly crisp crust on the lemon meringue pie than the art instalment I saw at the Louvre. For me memories have always been made in the kitchen. Sharing a table and breaking bread together is the best way to get to know a country and its people. The taste or smell of an enticing meal is capable of painting a picture with richer, deeper brush strokes than any snapshot in your photo album. I find it interesting that while I struggle to remember my cellphone number or remember what I did yesterday the merest sniff of bread baking in the oven will evoke a plethora of memories and has me gathered around the kitchen table with my dad kneading dough with 5 year old chubby little fingers with frightening clarity.


“Ponder well on this point:
the pleasant hours of our life 
are all connected by a more or less tangible link, 
with some memory of the table.” Charles Pierre Monselet 


A friend recently gifted me a signed cookbook from another talented friend whom I have known for many years. This particular vegetarian cookbook itself deserves many accolades which will come in a later post. In the meantime, although the enticing photos and easy to follow recipes drew me in and I will be making several of its recipes over the next few days, I was struck with a flash of lightning by a reference in this cookbook to an eggplant and porcini meatball from Domenica Marchetti from her own cookbook The Glorious Vegetables of Italy. Memories of sight, sound, and taste rushed to my senses and I became excited to venture into the kitchen as soon as possible.  A quick search on-line, a tentative e-mail, and a quick response and it is with great pleasure that I share this recipe with you with Domenica's permission. 

The mere mention of these eggplant meatballs had me entering a driveway where an old stone wall meandered snake like between a staggering expanse of farmland and the memory of a jaw-dropping picnic on Capo Vaticano in Calabria. We may have been at the most romantic view point in all of Calabria with a fantastic panorama over the Aeolian Islands and Sicily! Our view looked over miles of shore, and outward to the ever-rising limit of sea and sky. The effects of light and the gradations of colour had a transparency, a softness, an indefiniteness, unlike anything to be seen since.

The sea was an intense blue and I was forced to blink against the flickers of light on the waves that shimmered like precious stones, and the whitest sand beaches far below. The murmur of  the Tropean surf on shore is itself something of a siren spell, but I easily broke the spell with what was to unfold. Taking deep breaths I fill my lungs with both tranquillity and fresh sea salt air breezes and prepared myself for a meal that outshone even the most intricate and complex flavoured restaurant fare.

My new found friend Rosanna spread several checkered cloths and basket by basket laid before us a feast fit for the gods. She is the sweetest women you would ever want to meet. I really do need to learn Italian so that when we meet again I can discuss with her the food of her beloved land. The impromptu scene was laden with dishes using whatever was in season. From what I remember our picnic started with all manner of olives, artichoke hearts, home cured meats, fresh bread and wine. Dio mio! Chunks of cheese... perhaps the local juncata di capra, a goat ricotta set in small baskets; caciocavallo, a three-day old fresh cheese; or the rich burrino di vacca, a cheese with butter in its centre... were served with home made preserves.

I was privileged to sample a wide variety of homemade Calabrian dishes Rosanna had prepared from an airy frittata (egg soufflĂ©) made with bright green asparagus picked from her own garden that morning, to a type of pita bread from ancient times, a juicy salad of sun-ripened tomatoes and onions, bean salad,  both meat and those eggplant meatballs and zucchini fritters. I am sure there was more but in my dream-like state it is hard to recall. The flavour of these gifts from the Calabrian gods was enough to make me weak in the knees. At this point my eyes were closed and I was savouring every bite. For dessert there was a delicious crostata, and all manner of fruits and nuts gathered in the area. These local foods are expressions of simplicity, anchored in absolute freshness with occasional bursts of pungent, aromatic, fruity or creamy richness.

It was obvious that Rosanna had spent many hours preparing this feast and I was the grateful recipient eating as much as I could handle before I broke. Family life in Calabria centres around the dining table, where food is considered more of an expression of love and tradition than it is for simple nourishment. Many of the dishes in this ancient menu have not changed since their beginnings when shepherds offered the season's bounty to the gods.

I know I ate almost the entire platter of eggplant meatballs myself!!! Growing up with a vegetarian father we were introduced to a variety of "alternative" dishes. My parents however had, and still have, a decisively basic palate. Mock meats would never have been on the menu and not being a vegetarian myself I avoid them. The Italians out of necessity have been using eggplant as a meat substitute for generations. "There is magic in eggplant," Domenica writes, and not only when it's made into balls: "Dipped in flour, egg, and bread crumbs and pan fried, sliced eggplant does a great job of mimicking veal or chicken cutlets."

A couple of tips from my friend Dina of Olive Oil and Lemons who recently took a cooking class in Israel. "Roast your eggplant without a cover. If you roast the eggplants in the oven, leave the door ajar to allow a little steam to escape," she says. "Another thing about eggplants that I did not do before, but now do regularly, is allowing them to drain after roasting. Make an X cut at the bottom of the roasted eggplant and sit it in a sieve to allow the liquids to drain. This removes any trace of bitterness from the dish, what a great tip." Good to know.

Many an Italian nonna has her own version of this eggplant dish. I have asked several Italian friends and get a vague "add this and that" type of recipe for this comforting dish. Even if you are not a fan of eggplant you will love the taste, texture, and flavour of this recipe!! I am determined to convince the vegetarians at work that they need these in their life!!!A language barrier prevented me from acquiring Rosanna's recipe (if there was one) but I knew that Domenica's recipe would be foolproof.  I have everything I need on hand... so let's get cracking!!!

As I taste this enticing dish I close my eyes. The sun, the warm sea breezes, the faint strains of Italian music….all the memories flood back. I dream of one day returning to my beloved Tropea and reconnecting with the land. Thank you Domenica for sharing your recipe today and whisking me back to the Italy that I love. I couldn't help but serve these delicious "meatballs" the North American way with a little pasta. This magical place was hard to leave with a hint of the scent of wild flowers along the rock wall, and the memorable company and conversation, as we listened to the siren song of land and sea. It was autumn in mid-November where life is rather peaceful and contemplative. Thank you Domenica for taking me back.

**Eggplant and Porcini "Meatballs"with Tomato Sauce**
from Domenica Marchetti, The Glorious Vegetables of Italy

1 large eggplant (1 1/4 pounds)
1 ounce dried porcini mushrooms
Boiling water
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 small onion, minced
4 garlic cloves, finely grated
Two 28-ounce cans imported whole Italian tomatoes, seeded and pureed with their juices
2 tablespoons chopped basil, plus leaves for garnish
Freshly ground pepper
3 cups fresh bread crumbs (from 6 ounces crustless country bread)
2 large eggs, beaten
2 ounces Pecorino Romano cheese, freshly grated, plus more for serving
1 tablespoon chopped flat-leaf parsley
All-purpose flour, for coating
Vegetable oil, for frying
Crusty bread, for serving

Preheat the oven to 350°. Prick the eggplant all over with a fork and set it on a baking sheet. Roast in the centre of the oven for 1 hour, until very soft and collapsed. Let cool slightly, then scrape the eggplant flesh into a large bowl and let cool completely. Discard the skin.

Meanwhile, in a heatproof bowl, cover the porcini with 1 1/2 cups of boiling water and let stand until softened, 30 minutes; drain, reserving the soaking liquid. Rinse the porcini to remove any grit. Finely chop the porcini.

In an enamelled cast-iron casserole, heat the olive oil until shimmering. Add the onion and half of the garlic and cook over moderately high heat, stirring, until softened, 5 minutes. Add the tomato puree and pour in the porcini soaking liquid, stopping before reaching the grit; bring to a boil. Simmer over moderately low heat, stirring, until thickened, 1 hour. Add half of the chopped basil and season with salt and pepper.

Fold the chopped porcini, bread crumbs, eggs, 2 ounces of cheese, parsley and the remaining garlic and chopped basil into the eggplant. Season with 1 teaspoon of salt and 1/2 teaspoon of pepper.

Line a baking sheet with wax paper. Form the eggplant mixture into twenty 1 3/4-inch balls, rolling tightly. Dust the balls with flour and refrigerate for 20 minutes.

In a large nonstick skillet, heat 1/2 inch of vegetable oil. Add half of the meatballs at a time and cook over moderately high heat, turning occasionally, until browned all over, about 8 minutes. Drain on paper towels. Add the meatballs to the tomato sauce and simmer for 5 minutes. Garnish the meatballs with basil leaves and serve with crusty bread and grated cheese.

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