Eggplants are a staple food of the Mediterranean summer. At the same time they never got rid of an air of mystery. First, the name. The Greeks call them ‘melintzana’, which is a strange sounding word for such a familiar crop. It is a byzantine combination of the Arab ‘bāḏinjān’ and the Greek ‘melas’ – black. The Italians call it melanzana , which sounds close to mela insana – ‘mad apple’, echoing the origin of the crop from the toxic nightshade species. Then, the origin of the cultivated specie: is it India, China or SE Asia? Perhaps it was domesticated more than once, reminding us of the debate of origin of the homo sapiens. Did we play for eggplants the role nature played on us on our way out of Africa, combining different evolutionary trails, still not fully understood?
Then it is the colour of the black variety, unlikely to anything other fruit: black and shiny, ready for interpretation by an oracle – or like a missed opportunity to inspire an Italian art nouveau movement in the early 20th century.
Eggplants have been long enough with us to foretell the luck of dreamers. The interpretation in the Mediterranean dream books are banal (of the sort: be aware young foolish girls) and unexpected (of the sort: be alert managers or civil servants). In Japan if dreamt in Hatsuyume, the first dream of the new year, they are considered to bring good luck, as mount Fuji and hawks do.
Now, down to our Mediterranean summer, we prepare this simple recipe alternating the topping sauce with whatever is available in our fridge.
Serves 4 as a main dish, or 8 as a starter
- 4 eggplants (about 1,2kg)
- olive oil, for brushing
- sea salt
- freshly ground black pepper
The Tomato Sauce and Feta topping
- 1/2 cup olive oil
- 200g onion, very finely chopped
- 1 clove garlic, very finely chopped
- 1/2 green bell pepper, cut into thin strips
- 1/2 red bell pepper, cut into thin strips
- 1 kg ripe tomatoes, blanched, peeled and pureed (or chopped canned tomatoes)
- 1/2 tsp sugar (optional, depending on the acidity of the tomatoes)
- 2 Tbsp fresh basil leaves, finely chopped
- sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- 120g feta cheese, crumbled
Preheat the oven to 180ºC (fan) and line a baking tray with baking parchment.
Cut the eggplants in half, lengthwise. Score the flesh in a crisscross manner all over, using a sharp knife. Brush them with olive oil and season with salt and pepper.Place the eggplants cut side up in the prepared baking tray. Bake for 30-40 minutes until cooked through and golden brown and set aside.
To prepare the sauce you need to blanche and peel the tomatoes. Bring a large saucepan filled with water to a boil. Slice a shallow X in the bottom of each tomato.Working in batches, immerse the tomatoes in the boiling water for 30 to 60 seconds or until the tomato skins split open. Using a slotted spoon, transfer tomatoes to a large bowl of cold water. When the tomatoes are cool enough to handle, use a knife or your fingers to peel the skin off the tomatoes. Working in batches, pulse the tomatoes in the food processor. Add the sugar if using.
Place a large pan on medium heat with the olive oil and cook the onions and peppers for about 7 minutes, add the garlic and cook for 2 more minutes stirring regularly. Add the tomatoes with the sugar, bring to a boil stirring well, then lower the heat and let simmer uncovered. Continue simmering for about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Taste and season with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper.
Now it’s time to put it all together.
Preheat the oven to 180ºC (fan).
Press the baked eggplants with the back of a spoon to make room for the filling. Spoon the tomato sauce equally on each eggplant half. Sprinkle the crumbled feta on top of each eggplant, drizzle with some olive oil and bake in the pre-heated oven for about 20 minutes until golden brown.
Allow to cool a little before serving.
Sometimes we like to eat our eggplants with greek yogurt on the side.
You can keep it in the refrigerator well covered for 2-3 days and bring it to room temperature before serving.