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.”
The Slow Mediterranean Kitchen by Paula Wolfert. Copyright © 2003 by Paula Wolfert. Photographs copyright © by Christopher Hirsheimer. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.