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Lecce’s eggplant parmigiana It was the dish for the Eve of St. Oronzo but made with an abundance of ingredients. It is extremely tasty and there are many different varieties by Dario Ersetti
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Lecce’s Eggplant Parmigiana. Photo by Dario Ersetti

     Coming up with the origins of the name isn’t easy. In regards to eggplant parmigiana, there does not seem to be any link to the city of Parma, directly or indirectly through parmesan cheese. It does not seem as if the name is derived from the Sicilian word “parmigiana” either, with its reference to the movable slats of window shutters. Because it is also out of the question that the word is a deformation of another name for eggplant which is “petronciana”, we can conclude that we are in deep trouble when trying to find out where the name came from.

     Lecce’s eggplant parmigiana is strongly tied to the traditions and lifestyle of the people of Salento and those from Lecce in particular. The festival for St. Oronzo, the patron saint of the city of Lecce, whose celebration falls on August 26th, is connected to ancient pagan festivals tied to the seasons: it is the end of summer and time to leave the seaside and return to the city, when Autumn starts and routine city life is taken up again.

     But if during the days of the festival it is customary to eat chicken, roasted or in ragù, for a practicing Catholic a vigil of penitence was the done thing. And for the Eve of St. Oronzo eggplant parmigiana was eaten, as it was just that; a dish for the vigil, made with an abundance of ingredients. Like baked pasta dishes, which are other typical dishes for religious festivals, as many ingredients as your budget (and religious restrictions) permitted were used: mozzarella or scamorza cheese, boiled eggs, parmesan cheese and even meatballs, mortadella and prosciutto. A key to evaluating Salento’s gastronomy is the phrase that you hear after someone has just asked for the ingredients of a dish: “Whatever you put in you find”. This means that single ingredients don’t get lost by being mixed: the scamorza retains its presence, just like the meatballs, etc.

     A closing note: concerning eggplant, it has long been thought necessary to salt them before cooking in order to eliminate any bitterness. Good and essential advice in the past, but absolutely unnecessary and dangerous today, since modern eggplant is cultivated in different ways with a shorter growing season than in decades past. They do not need to be cooked for long and they are not bitter.

 

 

The recipe

 

8 servings:

 

- 1.5 kg of eggplant

- 3 eggs

- 150 g of flour

- 500 g of tomato

- 1/2 an onion

- 1 clove of garlic

- a few basil leaves

- 1/2 cup of oil

- 300 g of scamorza cheese

- 150 g of grated parmesan cheese

- salt to taste

- frying oil (preferably extra virgin olive oil)

 

     Prepare a sauce by sautéing the chopped onion and garlic and then adding the tomato; just before it finishes cooking, add the basil leaves and taste for salt.

      Slice the eggplant lengthwise into 1/2 cm thick slices, dip them in flour, then into the beaten egg mixture with a little salt and fry them in an abundance of oil.

     In a greased glass baking dish, put a ladleful of the tomato sauce and spread it around the bottom of the dish, add a layer of fried eggplant, sprinkle on top some grated parmesan cheese, then another ladleful of sauce, slices of scamorza, another layer of fried eggplant, and continue this process. Top off with tomato sauce. Bake at 180° C for approximately 40 minutes.

     This is the traditional Lecce recipe. One variation is to grill the eggplant instead of frying it. Another is to peel the eggplant and flour the slices with whole wheat flour, then dip them in the egg mixture, and re-flour them, which makes the eggplant taste like a baked pasta dish, as eggplant cooked in this manner is practically unrecognizable as eggplant. 

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