Traveling always improves our lives; a rich baggage of memories and images can change us more than we can actually realize.
Oral stories sung by bards and grandparents have left the place to printed works and the ominous prescriptions of altarpieces and religious friezes.
Printed and visual experiences continously pull and push us around like little creatures on our shoulders whispering in our ears words of alternate realities populated by far away but somehow familiar beings. Invisible silken threads connect us nowadays in ways almost unimmaginable to our immediate ancestors.
"Practice makes us perfect" they used to say, practice is all they had to learn by, to improve, to debunk myths and legends, when they weren't meant to accompany us in the sweet kingdom of Morpheus.
In our era, voyages and human relationships are largely favoured by what often threatens to destroy us. Personal developement through learning and shared experiences has been so fast forwarded to make us often loose touch with reality; loose our synchronization with the natural rhythm of things.
Interspersed in the ecticity of urban artheries, there are places in which the natural heartbeat can still be heard.
Parks, gardens, river banks and even museums, by offering us the chance to stop and reflect, are places that can keep us from a monthly nervous beakdown.
Nature and art can put us in contact with our guts, activating the rinsing cycle in our minds. Our cameras, if properly used, can even help us focusing our reflections by guiding our eyes.
One more reasons why to love Paris is its abundance of these restful places.
During my last trip in the French capital, I had the chance to discover another class of these cathartic places: cemeteries. A collection of art pieces, nature and life stories they are places of meditation and ponderings.
Rather than place for sadness, I find cemeteries to be imbibed in melancholy.
Death is the great equalizer, still life incongruencies have a place in its hearthely kingdom. Monuments to egotistic selves can overshadow the modesty of a soul that brought many people out of famine.
Still, here, love has the better hands over life inequities. A monument to love and sufferings that only death allowed, remind us of times when soul mating was eternal.
What we were, what we have become; a faded memory of flowers and stone.
When I was still a young boy, my mom used to make us a casserole dish that back then I wasn't particularly fond of. Consisting of eggplant, onions and potatoes, the dish textures were a bit too soft for me (if it wasn't for that top layer of crispy browned potatoes that me and my mom always fought for).
This dish came up to my mind while editing the photos I shot at the Père Lachaise in Paris (that I have been sharing with you) and I just had to recreate it. It has been almost 15 years since I last tasted this dish and now, with a more refined palate longing for simple pleasures, I was so looking forward to it.
The potatoes in mom's original recipe served a double purpose: first, to absorbe some of the juices that leaked out of the veggies and secondly to fill us up. With my current dietary restrictions, I can't have potatoes so I went for quinoa instead. Iknew it would absorb the liquids fairly well, add up to the nutritional values of the dish and won't interfeer with the now stars of the dish: the eggplants and the onions.
I was very pleased with the outcome of this recipe. That mushiness in the eggplants disappeared leaving vegetables with a lovely bite to them; most probably was due to the fact that I used a thick stoneware ovenproof dish. This type of vessel allowed the veggies to warm up gradually leaving the pectins in the eggplant and onions time to firm up in the acid environment constituted by the white wine and the tomatoes.
I did choose oregano over basil as herb for this dish since it gave me a more reassuring warm flavor that wouldn't be so intrusive. The mix of red and yellow onions made the juices so sweet and flavorful that you could even transform this dish in a baked-soup by simply cutting the eggplant into dices.
This is a great dish that can easily constitute a light vegetarian lunch or a side to a roasted chicken or the like. In the variations I propose you, I have suggested the use of prosciutto, sausage bits or even hard boiled eggs in it, to make it fit for hungrier meat-eater's tummies.
Sweet and satisfying, this is definitely going into my all-time favorite pile.
Mom Francesca's eggplant and onion casserole
Ingredients (serve 4-6 people):
- 300g onions, mixed red and yellow
- 600g eggplant, about 2 medium ones
- 45g/1/4cup quinoa
- red pepper flakes, to taste (optional)
- dried oregano, to taste
- 1 small can chopped tomatoes in juice
- extra vergin olive oil
- 1/3cup white wine
Set your oven to 200C/390F and while it is eating up prepare the vegetables.
Trim the stem and flower ends from the eggplants and cut them into 3-4 drums across their length. Lay the drums cut side down and cut them vertically into planks about 5 mm/1/5" thick and set aside.
Peel the onions, cut them in half and then into slices about 3mm/1/10" thick.
To build the casserole, chose an oven-proof dish that could accomodate the ingredients in at least 2 layers.
Grease the bottom of the dish with about 1/2 tablespoon extra-vergin olive oil, place some of the onions on it followed by the eggplants (if the pieces are too wide to fit in, tear them in halves using your hands). Sprinkle the eggplants with some of the quinoa and salt. Add a pinch of oregano, red pepper flakes (if using). Cover with some of the tomato pieces.
Continue layering the ingredients as described until either the oven dish is filled up or the ingredients run out.
Finish the casserole with a layer of onions a sprinkle of salt and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil.
Pour the white wine over the vegetables and bake the casserole for about 1h-1h30m or until cooked through. To test for doneness try a piece of eggplant, it should still retain some bite but must be cooked through. Check the casserole every now and then and if the top is browning too fast, cover it with a piece of aluminum foil.
Let the casserole cool down a bit before serving since it will be boiling hot. Coincidentally, this dish is great even served at room temperature.
Tips and Variations:
- I found that sprinkling the red pepper flakes only on the first layer was enough for me, but that depends on your love for spicyness.
- For a non-vegetarian variation try interspersing the casserole with some prosciutto, Italian sausage bits or even sliced hard-boiled eggs.
- To transform this dish into a baked-soup, cut the eggplant into dices and eventually add a little vegetable stock or water to the casserole.