When you enter a trattoria in Italy, usually it is a small, intimate family affair. The parents are in the back cooking and handling operations while other family members are the wait staff. Two representatives of this trattoria, a family member and the antipasto table, greet guests.
Laden with platters, the antipasto table beckons you to taste local seasonal ingredients. What a fun way to sample a new dish! Regardless of Italian region, fresh eggplant and tomatoes remain perennial favorites in the assortment because they accompany salumi, cheese, vegetables, eggs, seafood, and bread so well. Simply prepared, baked eggplant slices and tomato halves are anointed with good olive oil, and a breadcrumb topping.
Breadcrumb topping can be a mushy bland after-thought or it can be an intriguing blend of flavors with a light crunchy texture. The key is to pack this breadcrumb topping with flavor by adding fresh herbs, onion, garlic, cheese, and ham or salumi. Then layer it on top of fresh eggplant and ripe tomatoes. For variation, add another layer by grating delicate young pecorino or powerful sharp aged Pecorino on top of the tomato halves. Provolone, Cheddar, or Muenster cheese make good toppings too.
Bake eggplant and tomatoes to medium texture just until they swell and the surface of the breadcrumb topping becomes a light golden brown or slightly dry to the touch. Hopefully, there will be leftovers to serve as accompaniments for roasts and grilled dishes, whether seafood, poultry, or meat. Slip a few into a roll or baguette, add a lettuce leaf, to make a popular panino or Italian sandwich.
4 to 8 servings. Baking time is 25 to 30 minutes.
1 large eggplant (purple, white, striped, or your favorite variety)
5 large ripe but firm tomatoes (red, yellow, or your favorite heirloom variety)
Extra-virgin olive oil for brushing on eggplant slices and tomato halves
1 cup (5 ounces or 140 g) plain dry breadcrumbs
1/2 cup (2 ounces or 55 g) minced ham, prosciutto crudo, or salame
1/2 cup (2 ounces or 55 g) grated semi-hard or hard cheese (Parmigiano-Reggiano, Pecorino, or your choice)
1/4 small yellow or red onion, finely chopped
1/2 small bunch fresh parsley, finely chopped leaves
1/2 small bunch fresh basil, finely chopped leaves
Or fresh thyme or marjoram leaves to taste
Grated or minced garlic to taste
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/3 cup (80 ml) water or fresh tomato juice from the tomatoes halves
Salt to taste
Freshly ground pepper to taste
Optional: 2 ounces (55 g) grated Pecorino or your favorite cheese for topping the tomato halves
1. Preheat the oven to 400° F/200º C/Gas Mark 6. Line an ovenproof pan with baking or parchment paper.
Baked Eggplant: Trim off the eggplant ends and discard the ends. Horizontally cut the eggplants into 1/2-inch (1.30-cm) thick round slices. Lightly brush each slice on both sides with olive oil to help it remain tender and moist during baking. Arrange the slices in the pan, not touching. Place the pan in the center of the preheated oven and bake for 10 to 15 minutes, turning over each slice once after 5 minutes, for even cooking. Remove the eggplant slices from the oven.
Baked Tomatoes: Line an ovenproof pan with baking or parchment paper. Cut the tomatoes in half horizontally. Scoop out the seeds and juice into a bowl. Strain and discard the seeds while saving the juice for the breadcrumb topping. Pat the tomatoes dry. Lightly brush the outside of each tomato half with olive oil to help it remain moist so it does not shrivel and dry-out during baking. Arrange the tomatoes in the pan, not touching. Place the pan in the center of the preheated oven and bake for 10 minutes. Remove the tomatoes from the oven.
Meanwhile, mix the breadcrumb topping ingredients together. When adding the oil and water to moisten the breadcrumbs, pour in only small amounts as needed while stirring with a fork. Keep fluffing up the mixture to prevent it from becoming soggy. Taste and season with salt and pepper. When finished, the breadcrumbs are lightly moistened, but do not stick together.
2. Baked Eggplant: Lightly press some breadcrumb topping on top of each eggplant slice. Put the eggplant slices back into the oven and bake for another 15 minutes or until the eggplant slices are softened and the breadcrumb topping becomes lovely golden brown with a slightly crunchy crust. Remove them from the oven and allow to cool for up to an hour.
Serve warm or room temperature.
Baked Tomatoes: Lightly press some breadcrumb topping on top of each tomato. Put the tomatoes back into the oven and bake for another 10 minutes or until the breadcrumb topping becomes dry to the touch on top.
Remove them from the oven, sprinkle with grated cheese if adding, and
put back into the oven for another 10 minutes or until the cheese melts.
Remove the tomatoes from the oven and allow to cool for a few minutes
before serving warm or room temperature.