Welcome back to my journey through the Regions of Italy, using La Cucina—The Regional Cooking of Italy by Accademia Italiana della Cucina (The Italian Academy of Cuisine) as my guide. Today we are in Calabria, which makes up the “instep” and toe of the boot of Italy.
This first Calabrian recipe is called Melanzane dai Cento Sapori, or 1000-Flavor Eggplant. Eggplant plays a big role in the cuisine of Italy, so it didn’t surprise me that I found many recipes from all the 20 regions that are based on eggplant. Which is ironic because eggplants used to be believed to cause insanity. In fact, the Italian word for eggplant. melanzana, means “mad apple” (many “new” produce items introduced into Europe were referred to as “apples”).
What struck me as unusual was the addition of chocolate. Not that chocolate is a new concept in savory dishes, but it seemed strange to combine it with eggplant. And then I thought of caponata, an eggplant appetizer that is a specialty of Sicily and which traditionally includes cocoa powder. So…why not?
Another unusual element in this recipe is citron zest. Citron is a citrus fruit that is the color of lemons and has lemon-like flesh, but its rind is very thick and bumpy. It’s more aromatic than regular lemons, but it’s also extremely difficult to find in the U.S., unless you buy dried or candied citron. So just use lemon zest.
I didn’t know what to expect from this recipe. In the end, I was pleasantly surprised. It was slightly bitter, slightly sweet, and much more flavorful than I had anticipated. And more complex. A thousand flavors indeed. The ingredients are pretty basic, but combined, they really made for an unusual, delicious dish. It was deeply colored, very rich looking and unctuous. I would serve this hot by itself, or at room temperature on crackers.
Melanzane dai Cento Sapori
Recipe adapted from La Cucina—The Regional Cooking of Italy by Accademia Italiana della Cucina (The Italian Academy of Cuisine). Published by Rizzoli Publications.
Makes about 3 cups.
½ raisins (I used golden raisins)
2 pounds Italian eggplant
3 tablespoons sugar
¼ white wine vinegar
1 ounce unsweetened chocolate, finely chopped
¼ cup walnuts, chopped
¼ cup pignoli (pine nuts)
Pinch ground cinnamon
1 tablespoon grated citron zest (or lemon zest)
¾ cup extra virgin olive oil
Kosher salt to taste
Place the raisins in a small bowl and cover them with warm water. Let this sit for about 10 minutes, then drain.
Trim and peel the eggplant, then cut them into small cubes. Place them in a saucepan, along with the sugar, vinegar, chocolate, walnuts, pignoli, cinnamon, zest, and drained raisins. Stir together.Add olive oil and salt (I would start with 1 tablespoon). Mix well.Cook over medium-low heat, partially covered, until eggplant is tender, about 20 minutes. Stir occasionally.