Sunday, October 02, 2011

My Last Meal

I came across a magazine article the other day that posed the question “What would you order for your last supper?” and it got me to thinking.

For one, I wouldn’t order out. I figure I won’t be in a position to order anything or anyone. If indeed it were to be my last meal, I would hope I would be beyond trying to orchestrate those around me to do my will. But in the spirit of the question…

….what I would really like, if I could, would be to make the dish I have been making for as long as I can remember. That would be something loosely known in our family as Eggplant Parmigiana. And while it bears little resemblance to any eggplant dish I have ever seen outside my family, it is my ultimate comfort food and would be the dish I would want to have in my belly as I crossed over into my very own Valhalla.

It was a dish my mother taught me. I watched her make it countless times. I listened to my father complain about the onions not being strained or the eggs too hardboiled or the eggplant being too bitter. And she would just make it again and again and try to please a man who was so tormented from not having the life he wanted that it seemed she could never do anything to please him. But we ate the eggplant, sometimes in silence, and sometimes with fireworks. Fortunately the power of eggplant is more than fear or sadness or loss or pain. Thank God for eggplant.

I remember the dish from my college days, when I was so young and hopeful. I still am hopeful, just a little older and a little sadder from seeing the things that have been thrown into my river of life. But in college, with my trusty little ceramic bowl, I would impress young women by making them food. A little red wine from nearby Gilroy or Santa Cruz, and it might have even been a magic night or two back then. If I hadn’t been so darn serious. Or if I hadn’t wanted to do just the right thing, always. Damn that right thing business, taking so much joy from this young idealist.

Then in the 1970’s, I went to the hills of Calabria and saw my Calabrese aunts making it, so rustic and pure. Their chickens laid the eggs, they grew the eggplant. They started the fire with wood they gathered, and we drank their wine. That set me on a path greater than eggplant. But throughout the evolution of my life there it was – eggplant at a pivotal moment, teaching me about local and pure and organic and wonderful. And love and comfort.

Back in California, where my young family and I lived, we were vegetarians, and eggplant was really front and center. With a little red wine, this time maybe a light Sangiovese that I could find at Trader Joe’s for under $3, it would fill the bill. I was the only one who drank, the kids were too small, and my wife didn’t drink. But my neighbors would. And the tribe sprawled out in our tiny California courtyard and, well, you just had to be there. The little iconic dish that could, it was the one I would wish for as my last meal. It seemed it would always be there with us, celebrating life.

When I moved to Texas and my family disintegrated and it was just me and my little son, I’d make eggplant from time to time. My Aunt Mil revived me with her version. My, son, he still loves it. I take him some from time to time. Or when he is there. Lately though, he hasn’t been “there.” I don’t really know where he “is.” I think he probably isn’t where he wants to be. Maybe I should make some eggplant and take it to him, pull him back out.

It has been a great summer for eggplant, ‘even found some growing behind my plot. A neighbor was experimenting with a little victory garden in the greenspace behind all our yards. Unfortunately, he let it get too dry and it shriveled. But it did show me that eggplant could grow in my terroir. The next house will have an area devoted to eggplant. And maybe some of those chickens, too.

But we were talking about last meals. Probably what I should do is make some up and freeze it, just in case I will be incapacitated and not able to make it from scratch. My mom probably will be gone by then and so I couldn’t ask her to make me some. Maybe my middle sister could, but she lives so far away and has a life of her own. I wouldn’t expect that from her, if she were to outlive me. She probably will.

I will just have to make sure I am well and able enough to make my own ahead. And while I am at it, I would like to ask when it is my time, that I just go to sleep and not wake up. Then it would be as if I were just dreaming on through eternity. And if so, there I’d be, by my little grill and a fire and a pile of eggplants and eggs and tomato sauce and all the other ingredients. And a big bowl. And an oven (hopefully not the big oven down below). And a nice bottle of red Italian wine. It wouldn't have to be anything special – just red and dry, with some lively fruit and not too much tannin or oak.

My last meal would be my favorite meal of my life, and eggplant would be there, as it has been most of this passage. And, if I get my wish, on the other side, too.

Cevola Family Eggplant Parmigiana ( please note this will be published in the Edible Cookbook and I believe they will have copyright to it - so if you post, please note and give credit, even though it is my recipe . -AC)

Cevola Family Eggplant Parmigiana
Alfonso Cevola, hoja santa grower for Mozzarella Co.
Serves 8 to 10

A wine professional by trade, Alfonso Cevola is one of a handful of hoja santa growers for Paula Lambert’s Mozzarella Co. The huge leaves are used to wrap her prize-winning hoja santa goat cheese, imparting a wonderful, herby flavor. When it’s time to make this Calabrian family recipe, Cevola uses Paula’s fresh mozzarella as part of the cheese mix. This dish is not like any eggplant parmesan you’ve ever tasted. It’s more in the tradition of a timpano. Cevola has given it a Texas twist by grilling the eggplant slices rather than roasting them, making the dish more rustic and complex.

4 to 5 medium eggplants
Olive oil
8 to 9 hard-cooked eggs
2 (8-ounce) balls fresh mozzarella
1 (25.5-ounce) jar Muir Glen cabernet marinara sauce, or your choice
2 cups grated regular mozzarella
1 cup shredded Parmesan cheese

1. Slice the eggplant into 1/ 4-inch thick medallions (no need to peel). Lightly salt both sides. Lightly brush both sides with olive oil.

2. Fire up the grill. Arrange eggplant slices on the grate. Grill until they turn golden and get grill marks. Turn and grill the other sides. You may have to do this in batches.

3. Once the eggplant is done, remove to a platter. Set aside.

4. Using an egg-slicer, cut the eggs into horizontal medallions. Set aside.

5. Break or slice the fresh mozzarella into pieces about as big as your thumb. Set aside.

6. Preheat oven to 350 F. Select a bowl-shaped, oven-proof glass or stoneware container for your eggplant parmigiana, and gather your ingredients together to assemble it. (You may need 2 bowls depending on the size.)

7. Coat the interior of the bowl lightly with olive oil. Spread a thin layer of marinara sauce on the bottom. Add a layer of eggplant, covering the surface. Dot with some eggs, and a few pieces of fresh mozzarella, fill in the layer with the grated mozzarella. Add a light layer of Parmesan.

8. Repeat layers, ending with marinara, and reserving a little grated mozzarella for the top. Finish with the grated mozzarella.

9. With a baking sheet positioned underneath to catch any spills, bake for 35 to 45 minutes. To serve, cut slices roughly as you would a layer cake so every slice has layers in it.

Tip #1 Don’t worry if some of the eggplant slices get too dark; you can still use them. The main thing is to cook the eggplant so it isn’t tough. As you cook the eggplant, the skins will soften up, too.

Tip #2 Don’t use a metal dish. It will interact with the marinara sauce for an unpleasant taste.

Tip #3 This is a fairly free-form casserole and often winds up making 1 large casserole for immediate eating and 1 small one that you can freeze and heat up later.

written and photographed by Alfonso Cevola limited rights reserved On the Wine Trail in Italy
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