eggplant (Solanum melongena)
One of my favorite vegetables ever. Its color (light or dark purple, or white), its texture, its versatility: what's not to love about eggplant?
The only moment of tension that ever occurred between me and my friend melanzana was the day I decided to make baba ganoush and forgot to pierce the skin of the plump specimen I had selected for my experiment before putting it into the oven. After some time, I heard a soft plopping sound, which I almost dismissed. I opened the oven door and found what is probably the worst kitchen disaster that ever happened to me. Needless to say, I did not make baba ganoush that day: instead, I cleaned the oven. You have no idea how many seeds there are in an eggplant until you have to remove them from every nook and cranny of your oven.
The ancient Romans did not know about eggplants, so the word melanzana is not of Latin origin. It appears that the introduction of eggplants in the Mediterranean area is due to the Arabs, who got to know it in India. The word mela, meaning apple, and the Arab name of the plant, badingian led to melanzana. For centuries, melanzana had a bad reputation and it was even thought to cause madness. Its name was interpreted to mean mela insana, meaning both insane and not healthy. Such bad reputation comes from the fact that melanzana belongs to the Solanaceae family. It does not cause madness, but it contains the alkaloid solanin, and should not be eaten raw. Even undercooked, eggplant does not taste good. When it is thoroughly cooked, however, it is a pleasure to eat.
Probably the most famous Italian eggplant dish is melanzane alla parmigiana (also known as parmigiana di melanzane). Thanks to its spongy texture, eggplant absorbs oil easily. One way of lightening up the parmigiana is by grilling or baking the eggplant slices instead of frying them. Another famous eggplant dish is caponata di melanzane, a Sicilian sweet and sour delicacy of an intense flavor. Eggplants are a feature of Sicilian cuisine, so much so that last year in Palermo the Olympic Games of the melanzana were held, with participants from ten Mediterranean countries. My favorite dish marries melanzane and zucchine in a stew seasoned with basil and marjoram to which a couple of beaten eggs are added the last couple of minutes, so that they cook only partially and form a creamy sauce.