Well, here I am, almost a month into my life in Rome, with barely a pork roast to show for it. Between job searching and starting, apartment hunting, and running around the city looking at really cool old things (4th Century Hypogeum, what up!), I have seriously lacked the time to take a daily leisurely stroll through the market and whip up a seasonally delicious meal or two. Which is a shame, because the stands are seriously overflowing with melanzane, carciofi, spinaci (points to whoever translates that one correctly), and the rest of the bounty of Lazio, and it’s barely mid-February (although, to be fair it is about 65 daily, and today I spent the morning playing tennis ‘neath a blue and cloudless sky – on red clay, no less!). However, I’m now starting to settle into the rhythm around here, and looking for holes in my teaching schedule when I can sneak away to Rionale (the market closest to work) and make up a lunch idea on the spot.
Last week, I had a lovely little four hour break on a Wednesday, so I convinced a friend to meet me at the market for a little experimentation. I arrived early and wandered around the produce for a while until I finally felt the pull of the pesce. That morning’s catch was spread out across the ice, looking like it had been happily swimming in the Mediterranean just moments before. Squid, octopi, tuna, and a variety of other whole fish (yep, eyes still there) were just hanging out, begging to be fried, baked, sauteed, whatever – just anything to appreciate their remarkable freshness. So, when the question as to what we were making for lunch was finally posed, I had my answer ready “weird looking fish.” After chatting with the fish guy for a few minutes about our options and a quick lesson in how to check for freshness (firm to the touch, no fishy small, clear eyes), we settled on a couple of small mackerel – perfect for a dredge and fry or a stuff and bake. He prepped them for us, which basically just means taking out the guts and leaving everything else intact, wrapping it in paper and tossing in some parsley.
After discussing our options, we decided to go with the stuff and bake. So…that meant choosing a stuffing. The mackerel are small and light, so we wanted something to give it a little bit of heftiness – to make it a LUNCH – without overwhelming the fish. Fortunately, the rich purple of the melanzane was calling out, so we snagged one, along with a lemon and some impossibly fresh spinach. Like, I’m pretty sure Crayola invented the color of this spinach. Or at least uses this spinach when making their crayons. Anyway, some grana padano and pane integrale later, we were back in the kitchen – peeling, slicing and salting the eggplant, and letting it sweat out its bitterness for fifteen minutes or so. After rinsing the eggplant rounds, I cubed them up and tossed into a bit of oil to cook. A few minutes later they were soft, and ready to combine with a handful of spiced breadcrumbs, grana, chopped parsley, and lemon juice. And honestly, the stuffing on its own would have been enough. There’s something about eggplant with lemon juice and parsley that tastes like smoke and spring and I could just eat it forever.
Sidebar, we had sauteed a bit more eggplant than was needed for the stuffing, but that, cooked another minute or so with some tomato sauce, makes an AWESOME topping for friselle – a hard, round pugliese bread that you sprinkle with a bit of water and turn into a remarkably hearty and crunchy, yet light and flavorful snack? It looks like cardboard, but a few drops of water are transformative. It’s like making a sponge.
Anyway, stuffing made, it went into the mackerel, which then went into a roasting pan with some sliced tomatoes, olives, and water, which then went to the oven (350ish) for about 20 minutes. They emerged tender and flavorful, and were served atop that ridiculous spinach (sauteed with a dash of garlic and oil). Some bread to sop up the leftovers, and a careful hand to pick around the bones, and my GOD was that a perfect lunch. Followed by a knife-sharpening course, but we’ll get to that later.