There's no relationship between that lady up there and I, but there is a sort of connection. That gaze into nothingness and her relaxing posture was the same as mine when I looked up and noticed from the piazza beneath, that someone was resembling my mood. The mood that beautifully, and perhaps unwillingly, insinuates in you like only the south knows how. Unable to capture my own state of mind, I captured hers, to show you, what would otherwise be underestimated if said in words.
The first time I went to Puglia was for a summer vacation with my family a few years ago. Last year we went again and this year too. We always drive to go down and while our GPS tells us to go one way, we eventually detour the other. Off the beaten path, the surroundings were immersed in our eyes as we drove through hectares and hectares of century old olive trees neatly arranged on fields of fresh ploughed red earth. All at once the sight of the sea, and everything that comes with it, appears on the horizon and as we get closer and closer we're left speechless each time, we knew what to expect but there's no getting used to it.
Narrow streets, steep stairs, laundry blown dry by the gentle warm breeze, a lady who arranges fresh mint just off the doorsteps of her home, secret gardens within courtyards, poems written on stairs and views ... infinite views of the sea and its waves splashing against rocks; and the open calm deep blue that lures you to walk on water. Fumes, scents, aromas of food that roam through windows and run across alleys are torture to our hungry stomachs. The clock says 8:00 pm and while others are ready for an apertivo, we're ready to sit down to eat in one of those restaurants a friend told us about. Although I would have much more preferred to knock on that lady's door up there and invite myself to dinner ... something tells me she's a good cook.
Every time I come back from Puglia I try to recreate the food I had when I was there, in a way it extends that southern mood a little longer and helps soften the nostalgia. I had these melanzane ripiene (stuffed aubergines) in a restaurant in Monopoli. They served authentic home cuisine, no fancy frills, just fresh, genuine food, the big family reunion kind, the kind that makes you lick your fingers and clean the plate with a piece of bread. So instead of buying myself a magnet to stick on the fridge or a tea towel with Puglia's map stamped on it, I brought back moments I impressed in my mind, some I clicked with my camera and a culinary taste of the south I experienced and enjoyed right then and there. I also brought back the paper napkin I used to scribble down the ingredients I was given by the owner, the same napkin I used to wipe my mouth while I was eating those delicious aubergines. Consider it a souvenir from the south from me to you.
Passer-by, sin beyond any sin
Is the sin of blindness of souls to other souls.
And joy beyond any joy is the joy
Of having the good in you seen, and seeing the good
At the miraculous moment!
[Edgar Lee Masters]
Melanzane Ripiene - Stuffed Aubergines
2 long shaped aubergines
4 slices of fresh bread, 1 inch wide. A day old.
5 steep tbsp grated parmesan
3 tbsp capers
1 tsp vinegar
Extra virgin olive oil (evoo)
Wash and dry the aubergines. Slice each in half, lengthwise. Scoop the inner flesh with a spoon and reserve on the side. Brush the aubergines with lemon juice so that they don't darken. In a preheated pan, add 2 tbsp of evoo and fry the aubergine flesh you reserved previously until golden brown, season with a small amount of salt. Leave it aside to cool down. Meanwhile, place the slices of bread in a food processor and pulse until breadcrumbs form, add the parsley, capers, parmesan, vinegar, salt and pepper. Add the egg and mix until it is completely absorbed within the mixture. Now add the aubergine flesh you previously stir fried. Mix thoroughly. Fill the aubergines with the mixture.
In a previously heated pan, add enough evoo to fry the aubergines. Place the aubergine open side down and fry until golden brown, flip the aubergine and fry on the the other side. It takes approx 1 minute on each side. Do the same with each filled aubergine.
Place some tomato sauce in a baking pan and place the aubergines in the pan. The sauce must not cover the aubergines but should be enough to fairly reach the sides. Bake in a preheated oven at 180°C for 40 minutes. Remove the pan from the oven, serve warm, not hot. Dust with some extra parmesan cheese.