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Did you know there is a Sicilian version of Eggplant Parm?
Sitting around waiting to see Pilobius perform at Prospect Park tonight, as part of Celebrate Brooklyn, I decided to take a leap, and cook a Sicilian version of Eggplant Parmigiana, called "Baked Eggplant with Cheese and Anchovy." I followed a David Tanis recipe, featured in Wednesday's New York Times Food Section. His specific recipe title calls for Ricotta and Mozzarella, but since this is Cooking the Kitchen, which involves cooking what is in the fridge, I have substituted some Bulgarian Feta Cheese, and Parmesan. I also cut back on the servings of his original recipe, and made a meal for 2 instead of 6 to 8, using only one eggplant.
NPR playing in the background, about a new album by Offa Rex, featuring Olivia Chaney and The Decemberists.
(Do open up all the links in this section, to listen to the music cited)
As the eggplant is baking, I am listening to an NPR program featuring Olivia Chaney and The Decemberists.
If you've never found a way to experience the bliss and tragedy of traditional British folk music, this is your chance. The Queen of Hearts is a stunning new album by Offa Rex, the project of English singer Olivia Chaney and The Decemberists. It's a record The Decemberists' leader Colin Meloy has wanted to make for years, to honor that great British tradition and also the way bands in the '60s and '70s, like Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span, rocked it.
Their music harks back to some of the Child Ballads, and reminds me of the folk music I used to listen to in the mid-sixties, the Child Ballads rediscovered by Joan Baez. And if you ever read the novel, "Braided Lives," by Marge Piercy, one of the character's stories starts out by mirroring the start of Joan Baez' career, playing coffee houses in Boston, researching the Childe Ballads in the library, adapting the songs and making them her own. I think it is interesting that in this undertaking by The Decemberists and Olivia Chaney, they chose to are go back and explore this somewhat forgotten genre of music. Perhaps Child Ballads are destined to be rediscovered every forty plus years or so.
As one who is recently retired, and is trying to figure out what makes my heart sing, I can relate to these musicians' journey. For I find myself wanting to go back to the things that originally gave me joy. They were my first discoveries while growing up in my high school and college years. I find that I want to get back to making art, relearning the guitar, and mastering the language that I never took seriously in high school because I believed that I would never travel. And perhaps it is a life lesson to try to take the old, and find joy in making it in a new way. In the album, "The Queen of Hearts," The Decemberists and Olivia Chaney are going back to their roots as well, and reinterpreting the songs to make them their own.
Compare Offa Rex' version of Queen of Hearts to Joan Baez' earlier version. At first hearing, I almost didn't recognize Offa Rex' version as a song whose words I knew by heart. I like that they took the austerity out of the Baez version and accomplished their goal of making the song their own. It is almost how the plays of Shakespeare may be played in so many different ways. Just witness the recent news of Julius Caesar performed by The Public Theater in Central Park, presenting Caesar in the guise of Donald Trump.
In my early days of listening to Joan Baez, I chose her Copper Kettle as the first song that I tried to learn on the guitar. The song struck me as being buoyant and I liked a three note riff that rant throughout the song. Years later, James Taylor would write the equally rolling tune, Copperline, very much along the same subject of making Moonshine in the hills of Appalachia.
Copper Kettle was not one of the Child Ballads, which more often had haunting melodies. For example, just think of the words to Barbara Allen. After my husband's death from bladder cancer, the anniversary just this past June, I often thought of the love knot sung about at the end of that song, "and the rose grew round the briar."
Baez' rendition of the Child Ballad, Silkie, was the one in her repertoire that moved me most in her repertoire. Click the link and listen as you cook some Sicilian Eggplant, a/k/a Baked Eggplant with Cheese and Anchovy. You may find yourself tearing up, not over slicing the onions for the recipe so much, as for the ending of the song.
Out of the oven, left to rest for 20 minutes, and then time for a taste of Baked Eggplant with Cheese and Anchovy.
The reason I was intrigued by this recipe was that the idea of baking anchovies, gave me pause. This was even though I do love a good anchovy pizza, while many people do not and will not share one with you. For some reason, I found roasting anchovies, a bit off-putting. And yet, in the comments for this recipe in the online version in the NYT, one commenter goes on about how the anchovy melts into the cheese, so that you don't even visually know that it is there, but yet creates a wonderful umami flavor, whose saltiness adds so much to this dish. I must admit that while I cut back on the size of the recipe which calls for three small eggplants, I did not cut back on the anchovies. I probably, in my own fashion, overdid it. The original recipe calls for only 12 anchovy filets, and I used at least three flat fillets on each of four stacks of eggplant. So, as the saying goes, less is more. Or as another saying goes, do as I say, not as I do, and don't over do it on the anchovies, no matter how much you love them.
In his introduction to this recipe, David Tanis recounts the history of eggplant coming to Sicily, and then talks further about how this is not Sophia Loren's eggplant.
....it wasn't until the early Middle Ages, under Byzantine and Muslim rule, that eggplant became part of the everyday Sicilian diet. Eggplant originally cultivated in South Asia, had long been a staple of Arabic cookery; now it is popular throughout most of the Mediterranean....
....Eggplant parmigiana is often blanketed in tomato sauce, which makes this tomato-free version, which I learned from a Sicilian cook in a small town outside Palermo, rather unusual.
While I love traditional eggplant made with tomato sauce, I would not hesitate to cook this Sicilian version of Baked Eggplant with Cheeses and Anchovy, again. Try it too, and enjoy!
Baked Eggplant with Cheese and Anchovy
- Extra-virgin olive oil
- 3 or 4 small eggplants about 2 pounds, peeled and cut into ½-inch slices
- Salt and pepper
- Pinch of crushed red pepper
- 1 small red onion thinly sliced
- 12 ounces fresh ricotta
- ½ pound smoked mozzarella thinly sliced (or use fresh mozzarella)
- 2 cups provolone cheese coarsely grated (about ½ pound)
- ½ cup finely grated Parmesan or Grans Padano cheese about 2 ounces
- ½ cup finely grated pecorino cheese about 2 ounces
- 12 anchovy fillets
- ¼ cup toasted bread crumbs preferably homemade
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano preferably Sicilian
Heat oven to 375 degrees.
Generously oil a 9- by 13-inch baking dish.
Season eggplant slices on both sides with salt and pepper.
Arrange half the eggplant slices in one layer on bottom of dish, overlapping slices slightly.
Drizzle or paint eggplant generously with olive oil.
Sprinkle with crushed red pepper to taste and scatter onion slices evenly over surface.
With a small spoon, distribute the ricotta into little blobs evenly over surface, then arrange half the smoked mozzarella over the ricotta.
Sprinkle with 1 cup grated provolone.
Make another layer of overlapping slices with remaining seasoned eggplant.
Drizzle or paint eggplant generously with olive oil.
Top surface evenly with remaining smoked mozzarella and provolone, then sprinkle with Parmesan and pecorino.
Arrange anchovy fillets over top and sprinkle with bread crumbs.
Bake uncovered for 45 minutes to 1 hour, until eggplant is quite tender when pierced with a fork and top is crisp and golden. (If top seems to be browning too quickly, tent with foil and reduce heat to 350 degrees.)
Remove from oven, dust with oregano and let rest at least 20 minutes before cutting into squares. The dish is best served at room temperature, not piping hot.