Although I have been to Sicily a number of times and I have tasted local dishes there like caponata, pasta con le sarde, arancini, and busiate, I had never heard of melanzane abbottonate until I read about them on Stefano’s blog. Stefano is an Italian chef, author of cookbooks, and cooking teacher who lives in the UK. His recipes are always well researched and his is one of my favorite blogs (in fact he has two blogs that I follow, also one in Italian).
Melanzane abbottonate, or Mulinciani ‘mbuttunati in Sicilian, literally means “buttoned up eggplants”. The slit that is made in the aubergine to insert the filling looks like a button hole. The eggplant is filled with pecorino cheese (preferably caciocavallo from Sicily if you can find it), mint leaves, and garlic, and cooked in a tomato sauce. It is most traditional with round small eggplants from Sicily if you can find them, but I can assure you that even with greenhouse grown eggplants from the Netherlands this turned out very tasty indeed. In fact, I regret not discovering this recipe sooner, because I really loved this. The mint and cheese do a really great job of flavoring both the eggplant and the tomato sauce in an original and delicious way.
These eggplants can be served as a substantial appetizer, as a vegetarian main course, or as a side dish. As with all traditional recipes there are many variations, for example in some recipes the tomato sauce and eggplant are first cooked separately and only then added together. Or vegan versions without cheese. Here is my version.
For 3 servings
3 smallish eggplants
9 fresh mint leaves
9 thin slices of garlic (from about 2 cloves)
9 slices of pecorino cheese
salt and freshly ground black pepper
500 grams (1.1 lbs) pureed tomatoes
1 onion, chopped
6 basil leaves, in chiffonade
2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
Heat 2 tablespoons of of olive oil in a pan with a cover in which the eggplant will fit quite snugly. When the oil is hot, add the chopped onion, and cook over medium heat, stirring regularly, until the onion starts to turn golden.
When that happens, add the pureed tomatoes…
…and basil chiffonade. Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper.
Bring to a boil, stirring, then reduce the heat to a slow simmer.
Make 3 long slits in each eggplant. Make them as long and deep as possible without letting the eggplant fall apart.
If the slits are not deep enough, too much of the cheese will leak out of the eggplant.
If the slits are not long enough, the ends of the eggplant will not be flavored as nicely.
Fold a mint leaf around each slice of garlic, which makes it easier to insert the mint into the slits.
Open each slit with your finger and try to get some salt inside.
Insert a mint wrapped slice of garlic into each slit.
Insert a slice of cheese into each slit. It is okay if the cheese crumbles — just push it in with your fingers.
Place the eggplants in the tomato sauce.
Cover and cook over low heat.
After 15-20 minutes…
…turn the eggplants. Some of the cheese will leak from the eggplant into the sauce. That can’t be avoided and will flavor the tomato sauce. Enough cheese will remain inside, so no need to worry.
Cover the pan again and keep cooking over low heat.
Turn the eggplants every 15-20 minutes for even cooking. Check with a skewer whether they are done.
Keep cooking over low heat until the eggplant is completely soft, about 2 hours. This depends on the size of the eggplant and how firm they were.
Allow the eggplant to cool for 10 minutes or so before serving. Briefly reheat the sauce (by bringing it to a boil, stirring), and spoon the hot tomato sauce over the eggplant to serve.
Sachertorte is a famous cake from Vienna.