Today’s blog is as much about involtini di melanzane as it is about selfless people and their power to change and save other people’s lives.
Involtini di melanzane are possibly my husband George’s favourite starter. Individually deep-fried aubergines with a smoked cheesy heart, covered in tomato sauce, parmesan and basil. Just like a decomposed parmigiana, then? Yup, exactly that.
I feel I am about to explode with emotion, so I’m going to have to explain why I am posting this recipe.
Because it’s George’s favourite? Because it’s yummy? Because it’s a great starter? Because it’s made with some of my favourite ingredients? Yes, but… that’s not all.
The reason this recipe is even closer to my heart now is the story behind it and the memory newly attached to it. Some recipes stay with you forever for their meaning – not just because they are scrumptious. They simply become an important piece among the thousands that define our individual story and life path. And that is particularly true when food plays such a big part in your life.
From this day onward, involtini di melanzane will no longer be just the starter that I have always made to see my husband’s face light up with delight. It is now also the recipe I make to spoil the man who gave George a second chance at life.
You may have guessed his name from the unusual recipe title. Without further ado, my dear readers, let me introduce you to gorgeous and wonderful Tim and his superduper family.
So yes. The day finally arrived. The day we met the person who gave George and me a second chance of life is now a wonderful (very new and very recent) memory of joy, big hugs, smiles, laughs and bonding. And the occasional tear from Mrs Drama Queen.
And guess where this happened? Around a dining table, of course! The location for most of my precious family memories.
Dining tables have the power to gather people together in a special way. There is something intimate about passing on the bread for the final scarpetta, or topping up glasses with more wine for yet another toast…
And although we had never met Tim and his family when they appeared at our door, the moment we started talking over drinks and food, it immediately felt like they were family to us.
George and Tim share the same blood cells. Is there anything more like family than this?!
Despite the fact that I had never met Tim and family before, I can assure you that a huge amount of love went into the cooking for the meal we had on Saturday 27 August 2016: an epic date for us all.
I know that nothing I write today will do justice to the thousands of feelings I experienced.
From the sleepless nights before Saturday when we were both too excited to sleep much, to the moment I ran down the stairs to open the door with George. We took a few seconds before opening the door (how rude!) just to calm the nerves and in the knowledge that from the moment we would open the door, our life would change forever, for the better. It all felt very symbolic.
I will never forget the moment I hugged Tim and his gorgeous wife Cassie as if I had known them for ever. There was so much I wanted to say with that hug; it was charged with feelings of eternal gratitude, affection, devotion, respect and care.
In hindsight, that must have shocked them both a tiny bit – but I’m sure they both understood that a handshake would have not cut it for me.
And let’s not forget the anxiety of cooking a meal that would be good enough to say thank you to the man who gave us extra time, when I thought there was no longer hope.
The truth is that there is no way to thank the person who selflessly donated to the man you love the only thing that could treat a life-threatening illness and save his life. George means the world to me. It was already hard enough to think that such a horrible illness had hit him again, but the thought of losing him to this unfair desease was killing me.
My husband is the kindest heart you will ever come across. He is generous and a brilliant and talented man who makes my life simply wonderful. But not just that. He always seeks to help other people, despite his ongoing challenges.
How could I thank Tim enough for letting me have more time with George?
“How do you do that?” I asked myself many times over the past couple of years.
Eventually you come to terms with the fact that what really matters is to spend a special day with wonderful people. So I tried to relax and did what I was taught to do: show love by making good home-made food for those you care about. That said, the tension never abandoned me…
I have previously cooked for 15 people; then I challenged myself and cooked for over 40 people at the Auriol Kensington rowing club. I cook all the time for our friends.
But let’s be frank. This one was going to shock my system. I wanted everything to be perfect. Cooking started on Wednesday. I had four days to prepare. Yet every single moment, before serving any dish, I was shaking inside. I just wanted them to love the food. Not because of vanity, but because that meant I had managed to do something nice for them all.
Before the day we spent pretty much every night writing down every possible combination of menus, which would include starters, primo, secondo, contorno, dolce e cheese. It had to be a Neapolitan menu, and predominantly the dishes I had learnt to make with my family.
During this process George had to constantly remind me that although Tim is a superman and superhero, he actually has a human body with a limited capacity for food (though not too limited, it turned out!). He was clearly simply excited beyond belief to meet Tim and his family. Food was always going to be a big part on the day – but it was about more than that.
On occasions I noticed the tenderness in his eyes when he would look at me when I was feeling nervous. He never complained for a second that I was overdoing it and should just relax.
He just respected my feelings and supported me with the over-the-top planning. He even managed to find a good fishmonger where we could go and get some fresh fish.
He was less flexible about the number of courses. Eventually we met in the middle and opted for 7 canapés/starters, which of course included involtini di melanzane. I am sharing them today because both Tim and his wife loved them very much.
Other starters included montanare; bruschette with salmon and spring onions; buffalo mozzarella, tomatoes and basil skewers; parmesan and pear skewers; suppli’ al telefono; and a mini portion of calamari fritti.
We then agreed that two “primi” was not going to be doable, so we opted for home-made potato gnocchi alla sorrentina, pesce spada on a bed of potatoes with a topping of breadcrumbs mix of garlic and parsely, accompanied by a fresh mixed salad and zucchine alla scapece.
Because I was absolutely torn about pudding, I insisted on making a triptych of my favourite dolci: caprese alle nocciole, migliaccio and tiramisu al pistacchio.
To finish? Cheese: a good mix of Italian, French and British.
And then, just before they leave, comes that very special moment, when your guest asks whether you have the recipe of one of the dishes you prepared. THAT is the moment when you know they loved something so much that they are really keen to make it themselves.
So: fireworks, explosion of more happiness and joy:-D From that second onward, involtini di melanzane could no longer be called as such, but had to be officially renamed involtini di melanzane alla Tim.
The recipe of involtini di melanzane was not on the blog until today. There are certain recipes I cannot publish as they will be included in the book I am planning – yes, I’m still planning to get published. Agents of this world, planet earth and other planets: look at me, me me me me please!
So Tim, this blog post is for you, for your wonderful wife and for gorgeous Aldous.
I hope that when making these involtini, Tim will bring joy to the tastebuds of those close to his heart and be reminded of the miracle he enabled when he donated his stem cells for George.
I have the feeling that Tim and Cassie may have left feeling full and hopefully happy to have spent the day with us. I wish they could have stayed longer but the moment we saw them off I just thought: we have just made friends with some divine people and I felt excited at the thought of their being part of our life.
There is a bond there that will last forever. And I have to keep cooking for them, after all. One meal just won’t do!
“RECIPE PLEASE!” (apologies for the delay. I’m still feeling a bit too emotional)
PS If you feel at all inspired and moved by Tim’s generosity, you can find out how to become a donor on the Anthony Nolan website. If you are older than 30, you can sign up with DKMS (formerly Delete Blood Cancer). Or, if for whatever reason you are unable to join these registers, you can still make a huge difference by spreading the word among your networks or raising funds for these charities.
If the above options are still not suitable, then please help me spread the word about my fundraising project. You can follow my blog updates on Facebook, and if you want to learn more about Coochinando, you can watch a video we made recently.
Makes 30 involtini di melanzane
To cook the aubergines
- 2 big aubergines, to be sliced lengthways, 5mm deep (you should get about 15 slices from each aubergine)
- Water and salt for purging the aubergines
- 400ml extra-virgin olive oil, or peanut oil for a lighter texture and flavour, more suitable for deep frying
For the tomato sauce
- 1 bottle of passata, 750g (you may have some left over, which I usually use the next day to season the pasta or use it a dip for toasted bread)
- Half a small onion, chopped finely
- 2 tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil
- Salt, as required, depending on your taste
- 2 or 3 basil leaves
- Big bunch of basil leaves
- About 30g parmesan
- 6 slices of smoked cheese (scamorza affumicata) or very well drained mozzarella.
- Large baking dish (or two smaller ones)
We need to prep the aubergines. Wash them, dry and remove the stalks.
Slice them lengthways at 5mm depth. Many people use an electric meat slicer to get them all the same depth, but I don’t have one so: patience, attention, care and love. Even if they’re not all identical in size, they are very similar and that is good enough for an even cooking.
We need to rid the aubergines of their natural bitter taste. There are two ways to do that.
First method. Fill up a bowl with water, add a tablespoon of salt. Stir well. Place the aubergines in the bowl and soak for between 30 minutes and an hour.
Dry them well with clean tea towels or kitchen paper. Try to take as much water out as possible as this will prevent them from absorbing too much oil when deep-fried.
The alternative way is to just place the slices in a colander supported by a plate underneath, cover them with some salt, put some pressure on them (with a heavy saucepan or similar) and leave them to expel their water for an hour. When ready, rinse them under tap water and dry them very well using kitchen paper or tea towels.
Prepare the tomato sauce
In a medium-sized saucepan, add 2 tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil and the finely chopped onion. On low heat, sauté the onion, until it is a pale golden colour.
Add the passata, an abundant pinch of salt (you will need to taste it – what is sweet for someone can be quite salty for someone else!) and a bunch of basil leaves.
Let it simmer with the lid on for 30 minutes. Check every now and then and stir.
Towards the end, increase the heat until the sauce becomes thicker and you can no longer see any watery content on the surface. Taste and season with extra salt if required. And no, no other spices are needed.
Cooking the aubergines (better if fried a day before)
While the tomato sauce is cooking, you can fry the aubergines. Ideally you would do this step the day before so you can leave them in a sieve overnight to expel the excess oil.
Prepare a large plate lined with kitchen paper.
In a large frying pan pour the oil and on medium heat warm the oil until hot. Before adding the aubergines, test the temperature. Drop in a little piece of aubergine, and if it reaches the surface immediately surrounded by plenty of bubbles, the oil is ready.
Add no more than 3 or 4 slices at a time. They need to have enough space to be cooked comfortably. Turn them often so they cook evenly and do not burn.
When they are golden, but not too dark, take each of them out with two forks, shake the extra oil off and place on the plate. Carry on until all aubergines are fried.
Set aside and cover with extra kitchen paper. Apply some gentle pressure to absorb as much oil as possible. The best thing to do is to place the aubergines in a large sieve, with a deep bowl underneath, for a few hours (if you have time) to let more oil drain.
Now that the aubergines and tomato sauce are ready, preheat the oven to 220°C (200°C fan).
Line the baking dish with a layer of tomato sauce.
On a chopping board lay all the aubergines. Add a bit of cheese in the middle. Roll up the aubergine. Place in the baking dish.
Cover with a generous layer of tomato sauce. Sprinkle the surface evenly with grated parmesan. Add a few basil leaves here and there.
Place in the oven for 10-15 minutes, or until the parmesan is properly melted, the surface is slightly bubbling and the top is a bit brown.
Take out of the oven and let rest for 30 minutes. You can enjoy involtini di melanzane alla Tim warm or at room temperature, accompanied by some toasted bread.
If for whatever crazy reason there are any left over, grab them, store in the fridge, hide them well and have them between two slices of toasted sourdough bread the next day. And that, there, is heaven.