Don’t let the name of this dish fool you, there are no mushrooms in melanzane a funghetto, also known by its Neapolitan dialect name, melanzane «a fungetiello» The name refers to the way in which the eggplant is cooked, reminiscent of the classic sautéed mushrooms. Like so many of the summer dishes from Campania we’ve featured on the blog in the past few weeks, it is quickly made and very tasty.
The dish exists in both ‘white’ or ‘red’ versions. I suspect that the tomatoless version is the original—it uses the classic Italian sauté technique—but these days, I dare say that the ‘red’ version is better known. And that’s the one we’ll look at today. If you have some good local seasonal tomatoes on hand, you should try it this way. It’s absolutely gorgeous with grilled or roasted meats or fish.
Serves 4-6 persons as a side dish
- 1 kg (2 lbs) eggplant
- 500g (1 lb) tomatoes (see Notes)
- 3-4 cloves of garlic
- A few basil leaves, torn into small pieces
- A few sprigs of fresh parsley, finely chopped
- Oil for frying
- Olive oil
For this recipe—or, indeed, any other recipe that involves frying or sautéeing eggplant—it is best to purge the eggplants of their liquid, which can be bitter. Purging also helps the eggplant to absorb less oil. Here’s how you do it:
Cut the eggplants into good-sized chunks. Toss them into a colander as you go, sprinkling them generous with salt. When you’re all done. let them sit in the colander for a good 30 minutes or more.
Now set yourself up with lots of paper towels at the ready, and another colander or bowl. Take whole handfuls of the salted eggplant, lay it on a paper towel, then wrap up the eggplant chunks and gently squeeze to dry them as completely as possible. Drop the dried eggplant into the second colander. Repeat this procedure until you have used up all the eggplant.
The eggplant is now ready for frying or sautéing, depending on the recipe you’re making.
For this dish, you proceed to fry the eggplant chunks in abundant oil until they are just lightly brown around the edges. The eggplant should be tender, but not meltingly so. Lay the fried eggplant out on a baking sheet lined with paper towels to absorb any excess oil.
Now for the tomatoes, which you can make while you’re eggplants are purging: Cut the tomatoes into rough chunks, about the same size as the eggplant. Heat some olive oil in a skillet wide enough to hold them all in a single layer and toss in the garlic cloves. When the garlic is just beginning to give off its aroma (no more than a few moments) add the tomatoes and sauté them over a very brisk flame until they have cooked down. They will have melted into a kind of sauce, but with some chunkiness left in them. If you’ve made the tomato ahead of time, you can just let it rest off heat until you’re need it.
Now for the final step: Add the eggplant to the tomatoes in the skillet. Mix everything together very gingerly to avoid turning the eggplant (which should be quite tender) into mush. If you have the skill, the best way is to toss the ingredients around in the skillet. If you’re not up to that, then a spatula will do a more delicate job than a wooden spoon. Let the eggplant and tomatoes sauté over very brisk heat, tossing them from time to time, almost as if you were doing an Asian stir-fry, for a few minutes to let the flavors meld. Just before you’re done, add in the fresh basil and parley and finish the cooking.
Serve melanzane a funghetto hot or at room temperature.
The classic recipe calls for keeping the skin on, for both flavor and visual interest. And if you have nice, fresh, young eggplants on hand, or perhaps some of those long, thin Asian eggplants, which have tender skins and lend themselves very well to this dish, don’t bother peeling them. Older, larger eggplants, however, including ‘standard’ supermarket eggplants, can sometimes have rather tough and bitter skins. If you have any doubts, peel the skin or at least cut some of the skin off as you prepare them. If the eggplant is young and fresh enough, you can dispense with the initial purging.
The tomatoes for melanzane a funghetto should be very ripe and in season. They can be peeled, too, if you mind bits of tomato skin in your dish. (Personally, I don’t.) If you can’t find tasty tomatoes, opt for cherry or grape tomatoes, cut in half, or hydroponics, which often aren’t half bad. In a pinch, canned tomatoes will also do nicely, but use a less—perhaps half as much as indicated above—as they will otherwise overwhelm the dish. Actually, the exact amount of tomato is really a matter of taste; some recipes call for a 1:2 ratio of tomato to eggplant by weight, as given above, some as little as 1:3.
Some recipes, including the one proposed by Jeanne Caròla Francesconi, call for adding a handful of capers and olives to the tomato sauce along with the eggplant. It sounds very nice, although personally I prefer the “clean” simplicity of eggplant and tomato, or just eggplant. Speaking of which, for the tomatoless in bianco version of melanzane a funghetto, you sauté the garlic in the olive and then add the eggplant chunks, purged but still raw. Sauté the eggplant until tender and lightly browned, adding minced parsley just before it’s done. Be rather generous with the olive oil, as even when purged the eggplant will tend to drink it up.