In our day jobs, all three of the Gastronomical 3 spend an inordinate amount of time fretting about intellectual property. Given, the current political and legal climate and Big Money interests in squeezing every actual and potential penny out of intellectual property (but I’m not getting on that soapbox right now), we often find ourselves, as librarians and publishers, regretfully limiting access to ideas and texts just to be on the safe legal side, even when we are fairly certain that the original creators (if we could find them) would endorse the widest possible circulation of their works.
Appearances to the contrary, this actually has some connection to what this blog is about. I often think about there seem to be a different set of customs and practices — even if the laws are the same — surrounding the transmission of recipes. The essentially private space of the kitchen is its own kind of public domain. Recipes are copied down out of books by hand, photocopied in ones and twos, passed around on note cards, posted on blogs, read over the phone from one household to another and otherwise make their way into the world, leaving their copyright signs long behind them and often carrying with them no attribution or mention of origin. They are also, I suspect, inevitably tinkered with and modified along the way.
And so, we come to “my” Tortino di Melanzani. I’ve carried around this now very yellowed and stained piece of notebook paper for twenty three years now. I remember precisely writing it down. I was in Raleigh, North Carolina, living out the last days of my first live-in love affair and getting ready for graduate school. After several months hiking around France and the U.K., shopping at outdoor markets and eating street food, I was also developing a budding culinary curiosity. In Raleigh, jobless for two summer months, I would spend the morning on the love seat in our apartment reading Shakespeare, convinced that having read his entire work would somehow prepare me to be an English PhD. By noon the immense and stifling heat in our frugal (meaning no a.c.) apartment would drive me out to the public library and while I intended to study the classics of American modern literature, I more often ended up browsing cookbooks.
In a book that I think had new and vegetarian in the title, but perhaps in a foreign language (nouvelle vegetariana? Verdura nova?), I found this recipe and scribbled it on a page in the back of my binder. North Carolina and the boy who lived there (as well as the girl I was) have been left behind long ago, but the recipe has traveled around with me ever since, coming out every two or three years, a stand-by dish to impress new boys, thesis advisers and vegetarian friends in general.
It’s the perfect dish for this time of year, featuring the bright flavors of summer that are still to be had — the tomatoes, the eggplants — but mellowing them with the cooking and adding a dash of comfort for a chilly night with the egg and the cheese. With a salad, a loaf of bread and a hearty red, it’s a simple and elegant supper. As an accompaniment to grilled lamb loin chops on arugula with a bottle of valpolicella that cost in the double digits, the way we had it Saturday, it’s knock-out fancy.
Since I’m a librarian now and a bit of an obsessive always, I have over the years tried to find a copy of the book or at least a citation so I could give credit where credit’s due. But my research skills have come up lacking. I offer up the recipe with gratitude for its author and memories of many fine meals, and I hope that he or she will feel pleased that I pass it on and even more pleased if you do too. When I think about all the generous souls I’ve known who cook and share their skills and their knowledge, I can’t help but think this would be true.
Tortino di Melanzane
On my old piece of notebook paper, I jotted down Eggplant Pie in parentheses. I’m curious as to whether that was my own twenty-two year old translation or whether even a cosmopolitan cookbook circa early 1980’s felt that an Italian name might be too exotic and felt compelled to translate. These days, I’d far rather eat a Tortino di Melanzone than an Eggplant Pie.
Update: A bit of web searching this morning turned up several recipes for Tortino di Melanzane — all in Italian, except for one by Mario Batali over at the Food Network. He calls his recipe Tortino di Melanzane: Eggplant Cake.
1 medium eggplant, peeled and sliced ½ inch thick
3 T olive oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 medium onion, chopped
2 medium tomatoes, seed and chopped, peeled if you’re fussy
1-2 T red wine vinegar
1 t honey
1 T each parsley, oregano and thyme (or what you have in that family)
1 T capers
2 large eggs
3 egg whites
Mozzarella cheese, sliced
Grated parmesan or Romano cheese
Place eggplant slices on an oiled baking sheet. Brush with olive oil and sprinkle with black pepper. Broil on each side until lightly browned (the original recipe says 3-4 minutes a side; mine always seem to take longer). Remove from broiler and set aside.
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
Saute chopped onion in 1-2 T olive oil until soft, then add chopped tomatoes, garlic, herbs, capers, vinegar and honey. Cook briefly for 5-10 minutes, then remove from heat and allow to modestly cool.
Sprinkle a 10 inch quiche pan or pie plate with Parmesan or Romano cheese. Spread the eggplant slices in the dish, allowing slices to go up the side, effectively forming the crust of the pie. Next layer sliced mozzarella and then tomato slices. Sprinkle generously with more Parmesan or Romano and pepper.
Beat whole eggs and then them to the cooled tomato mixture. Beat egg whites until they hold soft peaks, then fold well into the tomato-egg mixture. Pour over the eggplant.
Bake at 400 degrees in the lower half of the oven for 15-20 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 350 degrees, sprinkle with more cheese and bake an additional 10-15 minutes until top is well-browned.