Now that I am back from Spring travels in Italy, I will resurrect those memories with a visit to Eataly Boston. This emporium is a good source for many of the ingredients I use at home. Two weeks ago I was shopping there and decided to have a bite to eat, not a meal — but just enough. In fact, Eataly has just such a restaurant in the heart of the store, La Piazza. I can be very selective for a snack like this. Fortunately, they had just what I wanted — bruschette.
ACCIUGHE E BURRO | 5 Agostino Recca anchovies, butter, parsley
MELANZANA | 7 Roasted eggplant, raisins, pine nuts
These two small plates and a glass of Italian rosé were perfect.
These dishes can be pedestrian, or if executed well as done here — ethereal. I finished the meal, went back to my shopping, and returned home. As a result I was inspired to replicate the experience at home as best I could.
You know me well enough by now that each food incident comes with a story, and it is sometimes a long one. Such is the case here.
So a week later I took out two salt-packed anchovies from the Gustiamo jar I always have in the refrigerator, carefully rinsed, de-salted, and de-boned them. I pan-fried slices of Tuscan pane in olive oil, layered on sweet butter and anchovy fillets, snipped some chives from the herb garden, poured a glass of white wine, and mmmm, enjoyed a fair approximation.
My fascination with the magic of grilled bread and various toppings goes back many years. I won’t go into all the other combinations, but I will concentrate on these two specifics — anchovies and eggplant purée.
Burro e Alici
About the same time as Marcella Hazan’s first book was published (1973). I was learning about Italian cooking from a couple in Boston, Margaret and Franco Romagnoli. They had a cooking show on WGBH, the local PBS station, and they had a small restaurant in downtown Boston. Here was their first cookbook (1974); it was followed two years later by the Meatless cookbook, very useful for Lent (and other purposes):
Some years later I found this recipe in the second book:
Simple, charming and delicious. For about twenty years it was one of my favorite snacks at our summer home in Nantucket, made with a fresh slice of Portuguese White Bread from the Nantucket Bake Shop, sweet butter, anchovy from a jar (I had not yet discovered the salt-packed variety which are far superior). Always a cold glass of white wine was the accompaniment. So far, no one in Rome has asked me “How’s it going”, but I have my answer ready when one does.
Roasting eggplant properly is an art. In one of Ottolenghi’s cookbooks there is a recipe which was transformative for me on this topic. The ideal (and inelegant) method is to place the whole eggplant in among the embers and ashes of a smoldering wood fire. Rotated occasionally, it lies there until deeply charred on the outside and fully deflated as most of the moisture steams out of fissures in the skin. After removing from the fire, you peel it carefully, strip out the pulp on the inside (removing excess seeds), drain it of accumulated bitter juices, and then mix it with olive oil, garlic and herbs. We’ve done it a few times, and it’s an amazing treat. Sometimes on toast, or as a salad. Occasionally topped with pomegranate seeds.
Given that background, we now return to the melanzana bruschetta from Eataly.
Note the moist, greenish brown purée. That’s a tender, sweet eggplant, and it’s treated Sicilian style with pine nuts and golden raisins.
That’s what I wanted to produce last weekend at home. We had fired up the pizza oven, so I knew I could use the hot coals to roast the eggplant when the oven cooled down a bit. I asked Barbara to be sure to save the larger of our two eggplants for this purpose. She did that, but unfortunately she got confused by an eggplant tapa I sometimes make in our electric oven, and she sliced the vegetable in half lengthwise, destroying any chance of roasting it whole in the coals.
Glumly, I made do as best I could. I scored the eggplant flesh, brushed with olive oil, placed the two halves open-side up on a roasting platter, and placed in the oven. The eggplant was partially-cooked but starting to burn, so I removed and cooled it, and left it in the refrigerator overnight.
The next day I peeled, tugged, sliced, etc. the partly-cooked skin off and then chopped up the cooked flesh. It was still pretty firm. Cooking that pulp slowly, with olive oil and salt in a ceramic bowl with a heavy top for almost an hour produced the effect I was seeking. Here is the version I made yesterday.