When I first arrived in Agerola, Giuseppe liked to go around telling people that I was a “great cook,” which in retrospect was just about the most ridiculous thing he could say about me at the time. I remember a man with whom I worked in Washington who once told me, referring to his wife, “Oh Hillary is a great cook.” This same man later invited me over for dinner, probably so that he could later gloat that Hillary was indeed a great cook!!!!
For some reason beyond my current comprehension, I actually accepted this man’s invitation to sample Hillary’s great cooking. Upon arriving at their home (yes, you guessed it, they lived in suburban Virginia), I quickly learned that this Hillary lady was a ‘HUGE’ fan of Food Network chef Melissa d’Arabian.
Unsurprisingly our evening’s feast featured a full menu exactingly prepared according to Ms. d’Arabian’s much touted testament to parsimony: Ten Dollar Dinners. I don’t even recall what we ate that night. It was uninspired, but not exactly bad. I am sure that Hillary prepared everything according to Ms. d’Arabian’s precise instructions. What I do know is that the pièce de résistance of the evening was pot de crème and that Hillary spent the entire evening proudly trilling the words ‘pot de crème’ as if she were a modern day Charles de Gaulle (or a current day Stéphane Bern). It’s just fucking custard I thought to myself. I was never invited back for another ten dollar dinner, and I’m not complaining. They served Cupcake Chardonnay, which was probably out of the 10 dollar budget.
Yesterday while I was picking green beans in our garden, that old ten dollar dinner party popped into my head. (My brain does weird things when subjected to mind numbing agricultural work). And I realized something: people in Agerola probably think I am just like that woman Hillary. If I thought Hillary was artless and a touch phony, then these people must think I’m a real hack. Or perhaps even more disturbingly, they must view me as some ingénue recently arrived from America who purportedly possesses great “braising skills.”
And the truth is, I probably am a bit of an ingénue in these parts. I really was completely useless for roughly the first two years of my residency here. I did not know how to plant seeds. I always worried about putting them in the ‘wrong way’. Use of the word ‘hoe’ set me into fits of sophomoric titters. Pickling was merely a vague activity that I associated with pocket watches and lesbians. Perhaps most egregiously, I followed recipes! The first week of my tenure here, Giuseppe’s sister-in-law asked me to make an ‘American dessert’ for her father’s saint day. With neither internet connection nor recipe book, I made a ‘crostata’ that was so vile I am sure they all laughed at me while furtively feeding it to the family pig.
One could argue that I have managed to conquer some of my original naiveté. I can filet anchovies with expert precision. Last week I watched our butcher kill a rabbit and I did not faint. I’ve done my fair share of farming and fertilizing. None of this has drastically transformed my cooking skills.
However, my approach to cooking and food in general has fundamentally changed. Before moving to Italy, I probably was just like that Hillary lady, proudly nancing around and trilling on about pot de crème. In fact, I know exactly what word I was pedantically trilling: bruschetta! Of course being intimately involved in tilling, planting and fertilizing the things I will eventually eat means that I appreciate my food more.
But after shoveling rabbit poop and picking bugs out of vats of wine, it is hard for me to glamorize cooking in the same way I see it vaunted on American social media. Food exists somewhere at the cross section between the fantastic and the banal. And as that pot de crème was just fucking custard and bruschetta is essentially Italian chips and salsa, cuisine, however rarified, is just fucking food.
For that reason I find myself longing for a very basic, dare I say ‘honest’ type of food. The type of food we don’t prattle on about, as we wax philosophical about the merits of Meyer lemons and (gag!) Burrata. I mean, I love Burrata, but let’s stop talking about it already. It’s just soggy cheese. I pondered all of this yesterday as I kicked around in the garden, avoiding lizards and worrying about snakes. I picked some eggplants, as one is wont to do in Italy in the summer. I made Eggplant Parmesan. We ate it. And that was all. It was good, although it was not exactly a religious experience. It was just lunch.
Parmigiana di Melanzane (Eggplant Parmesan)
Serves 6 as secondo or 8 as contorno
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 Vidalia onion, minced
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- Salt to taste
- 1 tablespoon oregano
- 1 bay leaf
- Red pepper flakes to taste
- Cracked pepper to taste
- ½ cup dry white wine
- Two 28oz. cans of tomato puree (Cento and Pomi arebest)
- Rind of Parmigianino Reggiano
- Beef marrow bone (optional)
- 2lbs eggplants, sliced vertically, ¼” thick (it is best to use a mandolin)
- Vegetable oil
- 1/2 lb. Caciocavallo cheese (or worst case scenario, provolone), thinly sliced
- 1 cup Parmigianino Reggiano, grated
- Basil leaves
- Heat olive oil in a Dutch oven over medium
- Add onion and cook until translucent, stirring occasionally with wooden spoon
- Add garlic and cook for additional 60 seconds, stirring to coat in fat
- Add salt, oregano, bay leaf, red pepper flakes and cracked pepper, stirring to incorporate
- Add wine, reduce by half
- Add tomato puree, bring to a boil and reduce to a simmer
- Add cheese rind and marrow bone, simmer for one hour, stirring occasionally and adding water if sauce become too thick
- While sauce is simmering, toss eggplant slices generously in salt and rest in colander for 30 minutes
- Rinse eggplant and pat thoroughly dry with paper towels
- Add vegetable oil to cover about ½” of large wide brimmed skillet
- Heat over medium and fry eggplant in batches to a golden brown, occasionally adding additional oil if necessary
- Remove each batch to paper towel lined plate
- Once you have finished frying eggplant, pre-heat oven to 350 degrees
- Ladle ½ cup tomato sauce to cover bottom of 9” x 13” casserole dish (be sure to remove bay leaf from sauce)
- Place a layer of fried eggplant over sauce, and cover with layer of Cacciocavalo and Parmigianino
- Continue layering until you have completed three layers of eggplant
- Cover final layer with tomato sauce and Parmigianino
- Bake for 30 minutes until crispy and golden
- Garnish with basil leaves
- Serve hot or at room temperature