Aubergines, capers, tomatoes, tuna, basil…ingredients that dominate cooking in the Sicily-Malta region and spanning all the little islands around. Flavours that remind me in particular of the island of Il Postino – Salina, with its incredible salted capers and left-alone rusticity.
“What’s that?”, asked a lady next to me picking over veg at the farmers’ market. The variegated purple beauties were jewels in among the crates of greens. “Violetta, a variegated aubergine; no seeds, and very sweet. Not bitter at all,” answered Marjun, the stallholder. He went on to explain that it’s an Italian variety they’ve just started growing. I’ve found out since, they are also referred to as sweet Mediterranean aubergines. Lured by its hues, both myself and my fellow shopper picked up several to test run, in some recipe or other to be decided on return home.
The ‘Violetta’ proved true to the farmer’s word. How many times have I abandoned an aubergine on cutting it open and finding zillions of seeds and rot set in? This one was a delight; its beauty not just skin deep.
I wanted to preserve its uniqueness in cooking, rather than see it mushed up. Snipping off the stalks, I got it to sit upright, flat on the baking trays, making it perfect for stuffing as individually portioned up veg. Stuffing and baking vegetables is a very traditional Mediterranean method. The sauce here is a cross between that of Pasta alla Norma and a caponata (no peppers though). A flake of tuna, and you could add anchovies as well, turn this into a fine pasta-free course to eat alone. It’s also an easy-to-serve and quick but impressive side dish. Miss out the tuna in the filling and serve it with any main, especially a roast.
All images © Liz Ayling 2013
- 3 large round Violetta aubergines, or similar size in other varieties
- 2 garlic cloves, crushed
- 3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- fresh ground black pepper & sea salt
- 1 and a half 400g cans of peeled plum tomatoes
- a dash of balsamic vinegar
- 1 x 200g can tuna fish in brine, drained
- 2 tbsp capers, dry salted or in brine, rinsed and drained
- good handful of fresh basil
- 1 tsp fennel seeds, crushed
- Pre-heat oven to 200°C
- Prep the aubergines: wash and dry the aubergines then cut in half across the diameter. Using a small paring knife, cut around each half to core the flesh, but leave a good centimeter of flesh in from the skin. Remove the aubergine flesh and dice roughly. Place the cored aubergines on a baking tray, season and drizzle a little olive oil inside.
- Heat around 3 tbsps olive oil in a large, heavy-based frying pan or cast iron skillet over a medium-hot heat. Toss in the diced aubergine. Wait for it to sizzle and brown a little then flip the cubes over, ensuring they brown evenly (but don’t let them burn). Reduce heat and add the crushed garlic cloves.
- Add the tinned tomatoes and balsamic vinegar and turn up the heat so the tomatoes cook quickly. You don’t need all the canned tomato juice so add more only if the sauce is too dry. Reduce heat and simmer for around 5 minutes.
- Flake in the canned (drained) tuna, and toss in the capers and some ripped basil leaves. Simmer until the tuna is heated through.
- Fill the aubergines with the sauce, sprinkling over some crushed fennel seeds, a few more capers and some more basil. Drizzle with a litle more olive oil and bake in the oven for 30-40 minutes until the outer flesh is baked. If need be, cover half way through to prevent the topping browning too much. Serve with more fresh basil and some crushed fennel seeds (if desired) on top and a little more oil drizzled over.
- Serve as a side dish to a main like fish, or as lunch dish or starter accompanied with salad.