Melanzane Piccanti Gratinate Al Forno (Spicy Oven-baked Aubergines Au-gratin)
Stuffed aubergines are a typical dish of our peasant tradition, and something you will find in many other Mediterranean cuisines, giving life to an interesting range of variations.
Each region has devised its version based on its typical produce and seasonality. From north to south they are stuffed with various ingredients such as meat, pasta, vegetables or rice and consequently are served both as appetisers, mains, or side dishes...and even sometimes as a dessert! Yes, you heard it right, aubergines, usually paired with chocolate, are used also in some sweet preparations and they taste delicious.
Moving from region to region, in addition to changing the filling, the name also changes, which is modified according to the local dialect.
Stuffed aubergines are a family "tradition", one of those classic grandmother's recipes, prepared especially in summer because of the abundance of this vegetable. For this reason, stuffed aubergines are excellent whether enjoyed hot or cold!
For my version, I chose a combination of ingredients from my land - primosale cheese, mint, pistachios from Bronte, and hot peperoncini (chillies) in olive oil.
Primosale, or primo sale, is used to indicate a certain stage in the ageing process of pecorino cheese, though the term also indicates a specific variety of Sicilian pecorino cheese. The term "primosale" is used mainly in southern Italy and Sicily and literally means "first salt", as in its first stages, pecorino tends to be less salty than the end product.
Pecorino can be consumed in one of its four stages of ageing, which are:
The difference between the four terms essentially lies in the time of ageing and degree of saltiness.
So, a pecorino milk cheese without any salt will be called tuma, and must be eaten fresh, within a week. Longer maturing periods lead to salty pecorino - the one we are most used to.
For this recipe specifically, I used a primosale that had been flavoured with chilli flakes and as such was slightly spicy. If you can't get your hands on any primosale, you can simply swap this cheese with any mild, medium-hard cheeses - scamorza, provolone, gouda, or even mild cheddar are some great options.
Another key ingredient in this recipe are pistachios. As I've mentioned several times before, pistachios play a very important role in Sicilian cuisine.
Sicilian pistachio, and particularly the ones from the town of Bronte, on the slopes of the Etna volcano, are characterised by an intense green interior colour and purple skin. They are prised for their aromatic nose and intense fruity flavour.
They are essential to many Sicilian desserts including torrone and cannoli, but they are also delicious in savoury recipes such as pesto. They are also commonly mixed with breadcrumbs and use in many Sicilian au gratin dishes ("gratinato" in Italian) - something that is cooked or baked with a covering of buttered crumbs and/or grated cheese until a crust or crisp surface forms.
Ingredients (for 2)
1 large aubergine
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 large clove garlic, thinly sliced
50g primosale, or other mild semi-hard cheese, sliced
A small bunch of fresh mint
4 tbsp of red chillies in oil (you can also infuse the same amount of olive oil with chilli flakes for an hour or longer instead)
2 tbsp ground pistachios
Salt to taste
Pre-heat the oven to 200C. Slice the aubergine in 2 lengthwise, then make 4 diagonal cuts on each half using a sharp knife. Sprinkle the cut side with salt and brush with olive oil.
Place them, cut side down, on a hot griddle and grill for about 4 minutes, until the surface is slightly charred.
Allow them to cool, then stuff each cut with a piece of cheese, a small piece of garlic and a couple of mint leaves.
Spread some red chillies in oil on the top, adjusting the amount to your preference, then sprinkle with ground pistachios.
Place them, cut side up, on a baking tray, cover with aluminium foil and bake for 20 minutes. Remove the foil, increase the temperature to 220C and bake for another 5 minutes to let the crust on top brown.