August was a good month for the Bartolini Clan at the old two-flat. Grandpa’s garden was in high-gear, easily producing enough tomatoes for all of both families’ needs. (Be sure to check out Mom’s Tomato Antipasti.) As the years passed, the garden grew and so did the selection of produce. Lettuce, swiss chard, eggplants, peppers, and, of course, grapes, all made their way onto our dinner tables in August, if not before. To augment his own “crops,” Grandpa and I made a weekly trip to Detroit’s Eastern Market every Saturday morning, where he would walk the aisles, haggling each farmer/vendor over the price of whatever it was that he wanted to buy. By the end of our “tour,” we’d return to the car with everything from fruits & vegetables to chickens (dead or alive) and, one memorable Saturday each year, a hog’s head to be made into head cheese. (You’ve not lived until you’ve walked around a crowded farmers’ market, carrying a hog’s head on your shoulder, stopping occasionally while your Grandfather haggled with some farmer over what amounted to 50 cents, if that.) Sunday was my Dad’s turn. Starting when we were very young, Sis & I accompanied him and our favorite stop was the bread bakery. While Dad chatted with his baker friend, we munched on bread straight from the oven. Along the way we might visit with friends or family, stop at an Italian market or 2, and then head to the grocery for whatever he hadn’t found at the previous stops. We’d return home, laden with all kinds of goodies, just in time for Sunday brunch. That night, both families often dined together in a large, screen-enclosed room, “the patio,” which Grandpa had built adjacent to the garage. It easily accommodated the 12 of us and very often a few guests more.
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In retrospect, these dinners went off like a well-oiled machine. While Dad, Uncle, and Grandpa worked the grill and their beverages, Mom and Zia handled the rest, from setting the table to making sure that the “trouble-makers” among us 6 kids sat at separate ends of the long table. (One memorable response, walkie talkies, though well-played was extremely short-lived.) Aside from the grilled entrées, the meal itself featured side dishes made from the garden’s vegetables, as well as those that Dad and Grandpa had just purchased. Family favorites, that both women were quite capable of preparing, were tomatoes, eggplant, and onions that were halved, topped with a bread crumb mixture, and baked. Both Mom and Zia spoke of Grandma preparing vegetables in this way, which is similar to recipes for tomatoes Provençal. With Mom & Grandma’s birthday having been on the 15th, and Uncle’s birthday the 12th, I thought this would be the perfect time to share this family recipe.
Now comes the hard part. I have seen these vegetables prepared countless times, most recently a few weeks ago while visiting Zia. I have prepared them myself dozens of times, the most recent being last night. Never have I measured any of the ingredients nor have I seen them measured. Mom would get so exasperated with me as I asked her, repeatedly, what the measurements were for some dish, often this one. Now, far too late, I understand. More important than how much of this or that is the look and feel of the finished mixture. She and Zia use this breading mixture in a number of dishes. It’s consistency varies depending upon the dish and how it is cooked. When used with Grandpa’s barbecued shrimp, it is very moist, almost dripping. Here, the vegetables are cooked at a much lower temperature than on a grill and, so, the breading isn’t as moist. Even so, you may prefer your topping to be more/less firm when served and the amount of oil used will determine that. Because of all this, I’m only posting guidelines and not a recipe. Use them as a base, adjusting where necessary to suit your own tastes.
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Grandma’s Stuffed Vegetables
Select fully ripened tomatoes, small to medium-sized onions, and baby or small eggplants. If you use large, thick eggplants, they will require pre-roasting, as do the onions. Better to seek out relatively thin eggplants of about 4 – 6 inches in length.
For the stuffing, you will need about 2 – 3 tbsp of bread crumbs per vegetable half; about 1 tsp of freshly chopped parsley per vegetable; 1 – 2 garlic cloves, minced, depending upon the number of vegetables used; salt & pepper, to taste; and enough extra virgin olive oil to fully moisten the mixture. It should not be sopping or dripping wet.
Pre-heat oven to 400*. Remove a thin slice off of the top & bottom of each onion. This will allow them to “sit” without rolling while roasting. Halve each onion, score the cut side with a sharp knife, and brush lightly with olive oil. Season with salt & pepper and roast in the oven for 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, create the bread topping. Combine bread crumbs, parsley, garlic, salt & pepper, and olive oil. Halve the tomatoes and gently squeeze each half to remove some liquid and the seeds. Add the liquid and “tomato caviar” to the bread crumb mixture. Halve the eggplants, lengthwise, and use a knife to score the cut side a few times. Use a pastry brush to coat the cut sides of the eggplants & tomatoes with olive oil and then season with salt & pepper. By now the onions should be about ready to be removed from the oven. Place all the halved vegetables on a lightly oiled baking sheet or dish and season with salt & pepper. Reset the oven temperature to 350*
Cover the top of each vegetable half with the bread crumb mixture. When finished, drizzle lightly with olive oil and bake in a 350* oven for 40 – 45 minutes. Serve immediately.
These are the 3 vegetable that Grandma, and later Mom and Zia, used. I’ve, also, prepared zucchini and summer squash this way, treating them as I would eggplant.
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Left-overs can be easily re-heated in the microwave. Better still, with 2 slices of Italian bread, one of the tomato or eggplant halves makes a great sandwich. Grandma served these sandwiches to her girls for lunch and they, in turn, served them to us.
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