Stewed Eggplant Stuffed with Cheese

Preparation info

  • Difficulty

    Medium

  • Serves

    4

Appears in

The Slow Mediterranean Kitchen

By Paula Wolfert

Published 2003

  • About

In summer, southern Italians feast on eggplant. Early in the season, they have the large and small black-skinned varieties, which they sauté, braise, bake, fry stuff, and gratinée. In August, when the smaller, lavender-colored Tunisian variety, rosa bianca, comes into the market, it's time for mulanciane muttunate—literally “small eggplants that have been massaged”— rolled on the counter until their interiors are softened. They are stuffed with cheese, garlic, and herbs inserted through slits in their surfaces, then simmered in a rich tomato sauce. It's an earthy dish of the countryside, colorful and highly seasoned, based on great, simple ingredients. And mulanciane muttunate is extremely forgiving; even if the cheese spurts out, or the eggplant and the cheese don't totally meld, the dish is still delicious.

Anna Tasca Lanza, owner of the Regaleali Cooking School in Sicily, told me that in her family, this dish was called “eggplant with buttons” and was only served on Thursdays, “because that was our monzu's day off.” A monzu, she explained, was the Sicilian word for the family chef, a corruption of the French monsieur. Monzus were men trained in the tradition of French haute cuisine, integral to Sicilian aristocratic life since the time of Bourbon rule.

“Our monzu cooked everything from game pâtés to elaborate timbales,” Anna told me, “but never anything so plain as an eggplant. On Thursday, our maid, Angelina, prepared the meals using local in-season ingredients. The main element of Sicilian cooking has always been the sun. Its energy gives Sicilian foods their richness and flavor. You'll find all that in eggplant with buttons. It's my most nostalgic dish.”

Ingredients

  • 2 black or pink, plump or round eggplants (¾ pound each)
  • Coarse salt
  • 1 pound red ripe tomatoes
  • 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 8 large garlic cloves, thinly sliced
  • Fine salt and freshly ground pepper
  • Pinch of sugar
  • 1 small piece of dried peperoncino or ½ teaspoon hot red pepper flakes
  • 5 ounces sharp caciocavallo or provolone cheese, sliced ¼ inch thick and cut into 2-inch pieces
  • 2 tablespoons shredded fresh mint leaves
  • 2 tablespoons shredded fresh basil leaves
  • 2 tablespoons shredded flat-leaf parsley

Method

  1. Gently roll each eggplant back and forth on a work surface several times, applying light pressure, to soften the flesh. Cut off the stems. Using a sharp paring knife, make 8 deep 2-inch-long slits in each eggplant, making sure the slits do not meet at any point. Soak the eggplants in cold salted water for at least 1 hour.
  2. Halve the tomatoes, squeeze out the seeds, and coarsely chop the flesh. In a large, heavy casserole, gently heat the olive oil. Add the onion, 3 tablespoons water, and half the sliced garlic. Cover and cook over medium heat until the onion is wilted and golden, about 5 minutes. Add the chopped tomatoes, salt, pepper, sugar, and peperoncino, cover, and simmer the sauce for 5 minutes.
  3. Meanwhile, drain the eggplants and pat dry. Stuff the cheese and the remaining sliced garlic deep into the slits. Press the eggplants back to their original shape and nestle them into the sauce in the casserole.
  4. Sprinkle with half the herbs, lay a sheet of foil or wet parchment paper directly on the eggplant, and cover the pan with a tight-fitting lid. Cook slowly for 30 minutes, then turn each eggplant over; cover and continue cooking over low heat until the eggplants are meltingly tender, about 30 minutes.
  5. Carefully transfer the eggplants to a serving dish. If the sauce is too thin, boil rapidly to reduce it to a jammy consistency. Adjust the seasoning with salt, black pepper, and sugar to taste. If desired, strain the sauce. Halve the eggplants crosswise and spoon the sauce on top. Sprinkle with the remaining herbs and serve warm.