Italian

Italian Grilled Eggplant With Garlic And Fresh Herbs (Melanzane Arrostite)

Grilled eggplant (also known as aubergine) with garlic and fresh herbs is a typical Sicilian dish, usually making an appearance as a starter or a side.

The dish, known as “melanzane arrostite” in Italian, which liteally means “roasted eggplant”, (eggplants are known as “melanzane” in Italian and “arrostite” means “roasted) is traditionally made with Sicilian eggplants.

Aubdantly available in Sicily (or Sicilia in Italian), eggplants were first introduced to this charming Southern Italian island by Arabs from the Middle East, and today the largest Italian cultivation of eggplants is in Sicily.

The Arabs ruled Sicily in 827 to 1091 and they had a profound influence on Sicily’s agriculture and cuisine, introducing new crops such as rice and sugarcane and enhancing Sicilian cuisine through the introduction of ingredients such as eggplants, apricots, pistachios, sesame seeds and saffron, foods such as sherbet, and introducing new cookery methods such as candy making.

With a thriving cultivation of fruits, vegetables, nuts and spices, less than a century after the Arab occupation, Sicily came to be known as the ‘Garden Island of Southern Europe’.

Native to the Mediterranean, oregano, known as “origano” in Italian, is the dominant herb in Southern Italian cuisine but is not so throughout the rest of Italy where parsely and basil are more commonly used. Oregano is more flavorful dried than fresh.

Slicing the eggplants to the correct thickness is an important step for a successful outcome. The eggplant slices must be well cooked through, yet it should not be dried out. Too thin and the slices are likely to burn or dry out. Too thick and the slices may cook faster outside than inside. 1 cm or 1/2 an inch is about the ideal thickness.

This Sicilian dish is not only healthy but delicious too.

Preparation time: 30 – 40 minutes

Total time: 5 hours

Serves 3-4

Ingredients:

  • 3-4 Sicilian eggplants
  • 4-5 tablespoons or as desired extra virgin olive oil
  • 3-4 tablespoons Italian red wine vinegar
  • Coarse sea salt
  • 1-2 cloves garlic – finely minced
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • Dried Sicilian oregano as desired
  • Fresh herbs (mint or parsely or basil) – roughly chopped

Method:

Slice the eggplant into circles, about 1 cm thick. Too thin and the eggplant will dry out. Too thick and the eggplant wouldn’t be cooked inside.

Sprinkle a generous quantity of coarse sea salt on the eggplant slices and toss well with hands to ensure the slices are evenly coated.

Let eggplant sit until it releases some of its juices (about 30-40 minutes).

Prepare marinade: in a baking tray, combine olive oil, vinegar, minced garlic, chopped herbs, salt and ground black pepper in a bowl. Mix well and set aside.

Take out the eggplants and rinse the salt off them.

Squeeze excess water, pat dry and set aside.

Heat a charcoal grill over medium heat.

Generously brush eggplant slices both sides with olive oil.

Place the eggplant slices on the hot grill.

Grill the eggplants both sides, till they are cooked but are are not dried out. When the bottom sides are cooked flip them over and cook the other side.

Transfer the cooked eggplant slices into the baking tray with the marinade prepared earlier.

Ensure the slices are well coated with the marinade.

Transfer the eggplant slices to a serving plate.

Drizzle any leftover marinade over the slices.

Set aside at room temperature for 3-4 hours to allow the flavors to meld before serving.

Serve with crusty bread.

 

Bruschetta

Bruschetta originated in Central Italy in the 15th century when it was common practice to salvage day old bread by consuming it toasted and drizzled with olive oil. Renowned Italian food expert, Marcella Hazan however, believes bruschetta’s origins can be traced to ancient Rome when olive growers bringing their crop of olives to the olive press would test the freshly pressed olive oil on toasted slices of bread, a practice which continues in parts of Tuscany today.

Although bruschetta was consumed as a main meal in the past, nowadays it is served as an appetizer or starter dish, known as “antipasto” in Italian. Traditionally, bruschetta simply consisted of day old slices of toasted bread, rubbed with fresh garlic cloves (known as “aglio” in Italian), drizzled with olive oil (“olio d’oliva” in Italian) and sprinkled with salt (“sale” in Italian).

Today however, bruschetta has evolved to include a variety of toppings be it mushrooms, seafood such as anchovies, meats such as prosciutto, cheeses such as mozzarella and vegetables such as zucchini, tomatoes and bell peppers. The most popular version worldwide is probably “bruschetta al pomodoro” i.e., bruschetta topped with diced tomatoes (“pomodoro” in Italian) and fresh basil (“basilico” in Italian). Italian cuisine tends to be very regional and seasonal so modern-day bruschetta would likely be topped with anchovies in Rome, tomatoes in Puglia and oregano in Sicily.

The simplicity of authentic bruschetta is no testament to its taste which relies on quality ingredients and proper preparation methods to bring out the appetizer’s true flavor. First, a homemade bread known in Italian as “pane casereccio” (“pane” means “bread” and “casereccio” means “homemade”) forms the base. The bread must have a substantial crumb with fairly large cavities (to absorb the olive oil) and should ideally be a day old. Slice the bread to thick, chunky slices; too thin and you’ll end up with crostini. Toast the bread over a “brustolina” as Italians do, until the slices develop a crunchy crust but soft inside. Traditionally, wood or charcoal were used and these lend a distinct aroma and taste to the final bruschetta.

Next, use a clove of raw garlic and rub the surface of the hot toasted bread. It is critical that the garlic does not overpower the aroma and flavor of the olive oil and hence one clove of garlic is usually sufficient for two slices of bread. It is also important that the bread slices are still hot; this way the garlic flavor melts onto the bread subtly rather than overpoweringly. Modern day bruschetta recipes sometimes feature garlic powder or garlic cream. However these substitutes stray from the authentic method of preparation and hence the flavor and nutrition is not as good as bruschetta prepared with a clove of fresh raw garlic.

The quality of the olive oil is critical since it lends a distinct flavor to the bruschetta. The aroma, taste and density of Italian olive oils vary by region and the choice of olive oil used is up to individual tastes. What is important is to use the freshest and fruitiest extra virgin olive oil.

If using tomatoes, use the ripest, freshest tomatoes, ideally Roma tomatoes. Frozen or canned tomatoes are unmistakably inferior flavor-wise and nutrition-wise compared to fresh tomatoes.

Bruschetta tastes best when served freshly made while still hot.

Ingredients:

  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 4 slices of homemade bread – sliced to ½ or ¾ inches thick and about 3 inches wide
  • Olive oil as desired
  • Sea salt

Optional tomato topping:

  • 2-3 Roma tomatoes – seeded, diced to ½ inch cubes
  • 3-4 basil leaves – torn to small pieces
  • Olive oil as desired
  • Black pepper – freshly ground
  • Salt as desired

Method:

Using a “brustolina”, toast the slices of bread over moderate heat over burning wood or charcoal, until toasted on both sides. Ensure the bread develops a crunchy crust but is soft inside.

Smash the garlic clove and rub over the hot bread slices (one clove of garlic for two slices of bread).

Drizzle olive oil generously over the toasted bread.

Season with salt.

If using the tomato topping, combine the ingredients for the tomato topping just before serving the bruschetta.

Top each slice with the mixture and serve immediately.