Editor's note: On Thursdays, Babbo pastry chef Gina DePalma checks in with Seriously Italian. After a stint in Rome, she's back in the States, channeling her inner Italian spirit via recipes and intel on delicious Italian eats. Take it away, Gina!
I couldn’t help it. They were calling to me: black, shiny, bulgingly beautiful eggplants, piled high at the market. Magnifica! The skin was so smooth and glossy, I could have reapplied my lip gloss in its reflection. Sometimes a vegetable beckons in unexpected ways, compelling and beguiling. I lost my head and loaded up.
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Mom rolled her eyes when I got home. “That’s a lot of eggplant.” She was right; I went overboard, and as the spell wore off, I could see that we were now in possession of enough eggplant to feed an infantry division. My mother is renowned in our family for her excellent melanzane ripiene (stuffed eggplant), but it is a labor-intensive dish that involves a lengthy bake in the oven, something we try to boycott on summer evenings. I could see her wheels turning, expecting me to ask for my favorite supper.
We’ll figure it out a compromise, I’m sure, and I’ll have a wealth of eggplant posts stored up for the future, but tonight I’m making a classic Neapolitan eggplant preparation, Melanzane a Fungetielli. Translated, it means "eggplant cooked like mushrooms"—sautéed with garlic, black olives, and tomatoes, and embellished with fresh herbs. I’ve often searched through my piles and piles of Italian cookbooks, looking for the actual mushroom dish with the same ingredients, but like many regional specialties it could be an aberration, a hybrid, or the evolution of a long-forgotten original recipe. In some local dialects this dish is called Melanzane a Funghetto. I just call it delicious.
Eggplant is a fine conductor of the flavors it is cooked in, especially if you salt it and drain away the bitter liquid. When browned and then simmered with olive oil, the eggplant develops a soft, silky, luxurious texture. The black olives and capers add a bit of pungent dimension, and the tomato ties it all together. The bright flavor of fresh herbs makes it shine.
The recipe below makes enough to reserve some to serve as a side dish—alone, hot or cold, as antipasti, or with a timballo of cooked rice. As a pasta sauce, it works nicely with some of the traditional short pasta shapes of Naples, such as maccheroni, paccheri, or gramigna, but in the absence of these, I reached for the penne rigate we already had in our pantry.
Give this dish a try this summer, when your market is bursting with local eggplant. It works with the big, black purple ones, or the smaller, longish Japanese eggplants. Don’t confuse it with Sicilian caponata; although it shares some ingredients, the flavor is pleasantly mellow and less complex, simple and beguiling—like a shiny eggplant itself.
Penne with Eggplant “a Fungetielli”
4 cups eggplant, cut into 1/2 inch cubes Kosher salt 1/2 cup olive oil 2 large cloves of garlic 3/4 cup black olives, pitted and chopped 2 tablespoons capers, drained 2 cups halved cherry tomatoes 1/2 cup tomato puree, or diced canned tomatoes 1/2 cup water A few grinds of fresh black pepper 2-3 sprigs fresh basil, finely chopped 1 tablespoon finely chopped parsley 1 tablespoon finely chopped mint 1/2 lb. penne rigate or mezze rigatoni
1. Sprinkle the eggplant cubes evenly with two large pinches salt, and place them in a colander over a large bowl; place a paper towel over the eggplant and weigh it down with a heavy can or pot. Let it sit for one hour to allow the bitter eggplant juices to drain away.
2. Rinse the eggplant cubes well and pat them thoroughly dry on all sides with paper towels.
3. Heat the half-cup of olive oil in a heavy sauté pan or pot. Peel the garlic cloves and smash them with the flat side of a knife; add them to the oil and cook for a minute or so, until the garlic turns light golden. Remove the garlic cloves and discard them.
4. Cook the eggplant in the oil in batches, stirring until it is brown and crisp at the edges; drain the cooked eggplant on layers of paper towels.
5. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.
6. Return all the eggplant to the hot pan and add the olives, capers and cherry tomatoes; season with a tiny bit of salt and a few grinds of black pepper, and sauté for a minute or so, stirring. Add the tomato puree or diced tomatoes and water, then lower the heat and simmer the mixture gently for 10 to 12 minutes, or until the eggplant is soft.
7. While the eggplant is cooking, add the pasta to the pot of boiling water and cook, stirring often, until it is al dente. Add a few spoons of the pasta cooking water to the eggplant as needed to keep it loose and moist.
8. Add the herbs to the pan and stir to combine all the flavors. Remove about one and a half cups of the cooked eggplant mixture to serve another time. Drain the pasta, reserving some of the cooking water, and add it to the pan; add a few splashes of pasta cooking water to loosen and help distribute the sauce.
9. Transfer the pasta to a hot serving platter or bowl. Serve immediately, passing your favorite grated, aged cheese.