“A tavola non si invecchia” The title of this column is a loose translation of this Italian proverb. Past generations are remembered through the recipes and the tools they have passed down to us. Whenever a certain recipe is prepared that was a staple of a family member and shared today, that person lives on in us. A painted serving bowl, a wooden spoon, an ancient cast iron pan can cause us to visualize it in the hands of a dear one.
When we serve an entree to friends that is accompanied by a story about how your mother, grandmother or Uncle Henry prepared this dish, I am sure it will start a wave of nostalgia from your guests about their own remembered recipes. We all have them, even about the ones that were not especially ready for the New York Times cooking section. My grandmother was an amazing cook, my mother, well, not so much. It wasn’t that she did not learn the skills but she had to cook for my father who possessed a rather limited palate. That being said, I cannot walk down the canned vegetable aisle, see Green Giant creamed corn and not think of my mother pouring it into a saucepan while giving my father a cold stare.
In our travels, Claudia and I have experienced a variety of food cultures and traditions. Classic dishes and recipes that have been made in exactly the same way for generations and identify both place and populations. When in our kitchen we recreate those recipes we return to the time we first experienced them and to the people we met. We will do that for as long as we sit at the table and share them with our guests or just the two of us. A place can be as powerful a memory as a person when reinforced with food.
At both Republic and Campo Enoteca, I served recipes inspired by a variety of influences but I also served traditional items from countries bordering the Mediterranean. I was always touched when called over to a table and a guest happily told me how a family member served the same or similar item and thanked me for the memory.
I have to tell you of the most amazing examples of a culinary legacy. Ida Giovanni, mother of our long-term office manager and dear friend, Tricia, knew her time was short so she labored away and packed the freezer with six months of tomato sauce, meatballs, pasta with beans, chicken and vegetable soup, fried eggplant and lasagna. To her end, Ida was thinking of her family and needed the peace of mind knowing that they would be well-fed. Tricia passed on Ida’s bequeath and shared one of the last eggplant dishes with Claudia. As they toasted Ida they were part of a continuum. One that by love and tradition connects us to those who are no longer with us .
At the closing of Republic of Campo Claudia happily shared Campo’s sourdough starter (born October, 2013) with all who wished to carry on the legacy. She had containers of the starter ready to take home for any bakers/future bakers who asked. Photos of their efforts came to her a few weeks later. I am told that sourdough starter if fed and stored correctly can last a hundred years. I am extremely glad that this culinary tradition does not have to wait for someone’s demise to be carried on.
This is not a difficult recipe but there are a few steps so remember “mise en place”. Also, it calls for some pre–made products i.e. pesto, tomato puree, and roasted red peppers. These three items can be easily prepared by you and be a meal or accompaniment prior to making the Neapolitan, but of course there are some very good ones out there in the stores.
1 large Italian eggplant
3 eggs, lightly whipped with a fork
1/2 cup canola oil
2 1/2 cups tomato puree
1 cup basil pesto
2 roasted red peppers
2 balls fresh mozzarella
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 cup whole milk ricotta cheese
Kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper
Flour and Panko bread crumbs
3 large bowls
Cut off the stem end of the eggplant then slice, depending on the shape of the eggplant, into either rounds or filets 1/2 inch thick. Place in a bowl, add salt and toss. Let sit for 10-15 minutes then pat dry and set aside. Slice the peppers (if not already pre-sliced) into thin strips. Chop the parsley leaves and set aside. Slice the mozzarella into small circles. In a row on your prep surface line up in order: ricotta, pesto, peppers, tomato puree, mozzarella, and parmesan.
In the first bowl add the whipped eggs. In another the flour with salt and pepper, and in the third the breadcrumbs and parsley. Dredge the eggplant first in the flour, then eggs, then the breadcrumbs.
Preheat a skillet and add the oil. When hot fry, each eggplant slice for a minute on each side just enough to brown, but not burn, the breadcrumbs. Set aside and let cool.
Line up the eggplant slices in pairs next to the row of ingredients. On one spread the ricotta, pesto, and peppers. On the other spread the tomato puree, sliced mozzarella, and Parmesan. Place one side over the other making sandwich then spread the remaining tomato puree and Parmesan on top of each stack. On a baking tray and in a preheated 375° degree oven, bake the eggplant for 20 minutes.