When you cook with Italians – you don’t actually cook, you’re life gets flipped upside down, you kinda get shunted around, snarled at a lot and prodded with wooden spoons and elegant fingers. I am a dude in a woman’s realm here and I’m ridiculously……..hopelessly….. out of my depth………….
My Italian family live in the far South of Italy – the bread-basket – Puglia. My Sister and Brother-in-Law are in Ostuni (The white city) and the ‘Mafia’ are all based in San Vito, West of Taranto. This is a typical Southern Italian family, at its head sits Nonna Macchiatella – Matriarch, Nonna’s 94, lived through the 2nd World War and is still an avid fan of Musilini (he did give her and her family 50’000 lire when they got married..so.. ya know). Nonna conducts her business from an easy chair in the open plan kitchen/living room, she speaks only dialect……..well….when I say she ‘speaks’ I really mean ‘swears a lot’ in dialect. Nonna is the is the great Director…or is that Dictator….?
This is the scariest kitchen I have ever been in. Firstly because I am, after all, nothing more than the token male in an explosion of female culinary insanity and secondly because these women are ‘the real deal’, this is Cucina Italiano of legend and folklore….it’s incredible.
This is Easter, this is big, this will last the better part of a week. It’s a veritable maelstrom of food preparation, arguments, fights, make-ups, hilarity and head swimmingly marvelous eating…I’m little more than a passenger on this wave and my only way of surviving is to let it carry me through to whatever end there might be. Swimming against this particular gastronomic, hedonistic and surreal tide is futile…..and to be honest not something I want to resist anyway!
It’s 10am and my brain has been reduced to a pulp already. I feel drunk with the sheer frenetic hive of activity going on around me. Huge wooden tables have been drafted in from neighbours and are now creaking under the weight of fresh vegetables, breads and smoked meats. Giant vats of pre-cooked sauces have arrived from ‘Auntie this’ and ‘Auntie that’ – and are now allowing their aromas to mingle with the heady fragrances of the wild fennel and lavender that waft in from the garden. This is Symphonic……Garlic has taken the baton as conductor in this orchestra, it is omnipresent and gently caresses every other aroma. Fresh Rosemary and Oregano are providing the deep bass strings rumbling alongside the brass section of bubbling polpetta reminiscent of a molten lava pool. But the Hail Mary of the piece comes in the form of the swaths of fresh basil, leaves as big as your face, strewn lazily around the familiar and perfumed scent accented by a subtle sting of lemon on the air. Hard cheeses and fresh breads provide the occasional warm crunch signature wrapping themselves around me in a gastronomic duvet.
This requires a strong constitution, it would be to easy to allow this drug to take hold and reduce me to a giggling mess in the corner which every fiber of my being is screaming for me to do right now……
On several occasions I’m required to chop, grate, pulp, stir, run, lift, wash, wipe at Nonna’s command as she deftly manipulates her platoon of chattering Italian women. Nonna’s hands won’t get dirty but her tongue certainly will as instruction and chastisement are barked out in equal and constant measure. One kitchen section is chopping fresh tomatoes by the basket full, their crimson flesh being deftly reduced to almost a paste by delicate olive coloured hands wielding knives as small as my own pinky finger. The pasta production table outside is producing Orecchiette at break neck speed, 3 ‘masters’ roll, push and flick these small ear shaped pieces of dough into little mounds on their pasta board ready for the ‘collector’ who disappears them into a smaller kitchen in preparation for their salty water bath. This pasta will be served with nothing more than chopped chillies and oil and will form the basis of the pasta course
My responsibility on this particular morning was simply slicing Aubergine for the Mighty Mellanzane – an honourable job of course and one the women deemed ‘fitting’ enough for a bloke of my station in their Empire. This is where I leaned ‘use your own judgement, dummy! This is where I learned that relying on a recipe written by someone else is for the weak (sic)… And this is where I learned the word ‘Basta’…………..
“Quanto Nonna”?…..I held 4 fat Aubergines up for Nonna to inspect and sanction
This meant ‘enough’ but the undertone was – ‘it’s up to you lad, but get it wrong and your arse is toast, capisce’!
“How much salt should I put in”?
“How much garlic should I peel”?
“How much Grappa should I spike your coffee with?”
There’s a big assumption here. The assumption being that I should know how much enough is. Now, this is all well and good coming from a Cucina Italiano veteran who has been cooking food, feeling food, eating food for so long that she probably has the power to manipulate it using only her mind at this stage. I doubt if Nonna went to Catering College or scribbled down every recipe she ever came in contact with. No, Nonna’s cooking is tactile it was/is by feel and by touch, by trial and by error…free style .The more you cook and the longer you have been cooking the more cooking becomes about instinct, awareness and reaction and less about solidly followed recipe instructions. This seems to serve Italians very, very well.
WHAT YOU NEED: Serves about 4 with green salad side etc
2 medium and very ripe Aubergine
3 fat, fresh Buffalo Mozzarella balls
100 grams bread crumbs ( crumb your own stale bread)
2 cans of top notch chopped tomatoes
3 cloves garlic – minced
Fresh oregan0 (bit dried will do)
Fresh basil leaves
Salt flakes and cracked black pepper
50 grms fresh Parmesan
HOW YOU DO IT:
Step 1 : Slice the Aubergine length ways to 1cms thick then shallow fry in Rapeseed or Veg oil – fry until fairly ‘limp’ then pat dry on kitchen paper. Set to one side and allow to cool.
Step 2 : Lightly fry the garlic in a sauce pan until it just starts to give up its aroma then tip in the tomatoes and simmer for at least 30 minutes – season with salt and pepper and also set aside and leave to cool completely.
Step 3: The next step is just assembly – take a roasting tray and place a layer of Aubergine on the bottom, then alayer of tomato sauce then a layer of Mozarella ripped the some basil leaves – reapet this once more.
Step 4: For the topping – lug some oil into a frying pan then fry the breadcrumbs until golden brown, season well and combine with the Parmesan and Oregano. Top the Mellanzane with the crumb.
Step 5: You can leave this now for a couple of days (which I recommend as the flavours only intensify) – then to cook simply sling in a pre-heated oven at 180c for 20-25 minutes.
FANCY A BEER?
TRY THIS: PERONI