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.