The cooking of Puglia, the region that encompasses the ‘heel’ of the Italian peninsula on the Adriatic Sea, deserves to be much better known. It practically defines the Mediterranean diet, with a strong focus on simply prepared fruits of the sea and fresh produce like fava beans, cime di rape and eggplant. Puglia produces some of the best olive oil in Italy, of the deep green, fruity kind, which is used with abandon in the region’s dishes. And it has its own rustic fresh pastas, made with semolina flour and water—no eggs—that come two typical shapes: orecchiette, concave little rounds of pasta called literally ‘little ears’ and cavatelli, which are short strips of pasta curled (or, literally, ‘scooped out’) into little cylinders.
I have a special fondness for Puglian cooking, since my paternal grandfather was from Grumo Appula, a small town not far from the regional capital of Bari. But my knowledge of the cooking is fairly slight. Angelina did all the cooking in her household, and she was from neighboring Campania. I did get to know a few dishes, including orecchiette con le cime di rape, which, together with the tiella pugliese, is probably the best known dish of the region. Angelina would also make some dishes, like baked chicken or lamb with potatoes, that are common to both regions. And one of my great aunts would make a wonderful calzone pugliese, a kind of onion pie.
I recently picked up a lovely small cookbook called Puglia: A Culinary Memoire by Maria Pignatelli Ferrante, originally published in Italian as La Cucina delle Murge. It is part of an ongoing series of cookbooks, each featuring a different Italian regional cuisine published by Oronzo Editions. One recipe that immediately caught my eye was polpette di melanzane, or eggplant ‘meatballs’. It is made almost exactly like classic meatballs but substituting the flesh of a roasted eggplant for the meat—a brilliant idea, given the ‘meaty’ taste and texture of eggplant. Like so many dishes of the cucina povera, it was no doubt born from necessity, with incidentally delicious results.
Ingredients (for 4 servings)
1 medium eggplant
100g grated parmesan cheese
1 clove garlic
A handful of parsley
Salt and pepper
Bread crumbs (as much as needed)
Olive oil for frying
Roast the eggplant, whole and unpeeled, in a hot (200°C/400°F) oven for 15-20 minutes. Remove the eggplant from the oven and let it cool a bit. Skin the eggplant and place the flesh into a food processor. (If you find the flesh is watery, gently squeeze out the excess liquid with some paper towels.) Add the remaining ingredients (other than the bread crumbs) and process until well amalgamated and fairly smooth.
Then, spoonful by spoonful, and using the pulse function on your processor, mix in bread crumbs until the mixture holds together into a soft but workable paste. (Use only as much as you need, no more.)
Take a bit of the mixture at a time, form little ‘meatballs’. Shallow fry the meatballs in olive oil, or a mixture of olive oil and vegetable oil, until golden brown on all sides.
You can serve your polpette as is, either hot or at room temperature. Served this way, they make a great antipasto or snack. In the alternative, you can simmer them in a simple sugo di pomodoro (tomato sauce) made with a soffritto of onion and garlic for a vegetarian secondo.
For this evening’s dinner, I made a vegetarian version of another popular Puglian dish, orecchiette con le polpette, dressing the pasta with the sauce, topped with the polpette and some grated cheese. It was, if I say so myself, perfectly delightful.