When my youngest was little, I was a stay-at-home mom for a few years. Life slowed down in heaps. There was an abundance of time-- the kind that gets you moving fridges and stoves and dressers and commodes to get at dust bunnies and their babies. There was time enough to make stuffed chickens, stuffed peppers and stuffed zucchini. There was time for traditional Eggplant Parmesan. The kind that's double-dipped in egg and breadcrumbs, gently fried in olive oil and topped with a homemade Ragu. Nothing but melanzane and parmiggiano gratuggiato cotte in una barca di Ragu, then topped with mozzarella as far as the eye can see. In those days, I kept candles on my kitchen window sill and lit them every evening before starting dinner. I would read and reread my favorite cookbooks while my kids played quietly with their toys, and spent entire days dehoarding the basement til it felt as spacious as our living room.
But then came school and homework, volunteer work, back to work, family feuds, renovations, aging parents, menopausal symptoms, and growing children who loved to store precious keepsakes...in the basement.
Speed has a way of pulverizing traditions don't you think? It has a way of taking the love out of grocery shopping, meal planning and generally running a happy home. My traditional Eggplant Parm recipe died somewhere during those years. A victim of our pick-up-the-pace life, it lies in wait for its very unlikely reincarnation. I guess somewhere along the way I learned that having dinner ready during a certain time frame was better than watching starved famiglia transforming into Joe Pesce.
These days, rather than burning all kinds of time planning meals and flawless grocery lists, dinner ideas take shape while I'm walking the grocery isles. It's pretty spontaneous and depends largely on how the spirit moves. When I pick up eggplants every two weeks or so, I place them gently in my cart and trust something good will come from my oven-- even if I tune out the cheese by the time I get to its isle. Despite my mental notes, formaggio gets left behind when there are seven different types of hummus to choose from.
Has my family noticed? Yes and no. Comments vary. Some nights I hear: "The last Eggplant Parm was better." Some nights it's: "Hmmm, sooo goood." Sometimes I get: "Nonna's is better."
"Of course Nonna's is better! Nonna can spend a whole day making Eggplant Parm if she wants to!" Kids today are bold, aren't they? No backhand to worry about and so they just comment as they please.
While I used to plan my Ragu in advance, now it's Ragu if I have time. I layer my EP with whatever leftovers are on hand and grill the sliced eggplant, brushing with garlic and olive oil as I go. Which leftovers have worked? Rapini, spinach, shredded zucchini and thinly sliced potatoes have been nice surprises, as have thinly sliced carrots, onions and hot peppers. What hasn't worked? I would stay away from shredded cabbage. Yeah. What was I thinking? Plain tomato sauce on each layer tastes as good as mouthwatering Ragu, and cheese doesn't have to be Parmiggiano. Cheddar, goat's cheese and grated Romano all taste great. I may have used others as well but nothing comes to mind right now.
This time around, I found myself grilling eggplants...and reaching for the mashed-potato-and-cheddar-cheese filling left over from Mr. BBQ's homemade peroghies. I layered sauce, eggplant, grated parmiggiano and mashed potato with cheddar cheese. Repeat again and again til you're done. Top with goat's cheese. I guess you could call it Melanzane a Tre Formaggi...or if you're older and your kids have left home and have their own families, you could call it something more romantic. This week I was whining to my mom: "I feel like I'm always at the kitchen sink. I cook. I clean. I cook. I clean. Is this the life my kids are going to have one day?"
"But that is the luv for your familee! You cook and clean because yu luv your familee and by doing dat you keep ev-ery one too-gether!"
Well, how about that? Or you can call it love.
Some days Nonnas give you exactly what you need, don't they?
Now if she could just explain the ol' backhand to me.
I think I'll go clean out my basement.