Columns by Pamela Majteles
Originally published August 20, 2010
Reprinted with permission from Bay Area News Group – East Bay
Since returning with my family from Italy, I’ve been trying to capture the flavor of Italy at home. But I can’t quite grasp it.
It’s as tough as trying to grasp slices of eggplant off the grill, as they slip from my tongs, while I’m attempting to prepare a classic dish we enjoyed on our trip. In Italy, they call it “verdure alla griglia” which is essentially grilled vegetables.
Food not only sounds better in Italy, but it tastes better too. Of course, we’d eaten grilled vegetables before going to Italy. But the ones we ate there didn’t look or taste like what we’ve had before. Trying to duplicate this dish at home is proving to be a rather large challenge, sort of like trying to paint a copy of the Sistine ceiling on my kitchen ceiling.
According to my family, on my first attempt, I cut the eggplant too thick. “In Italy, it was sliced so thin, I could see the sunset on the Tiber shining through it,” my husband reminisces.
It’s a struggle trying to cut the eggplant just right. When I slice it too thinly, it crumples like a used tissue. Other times, I cut it unevenly around, so it’s thin on one side and thick on another, resembling a flat tire on a Vespa.
My family tells me that my plate just doesn’t look like an Italian one, even though I use exactly the same vegetables. “Remember how the colors of the eggplant, zucchini, pepper and onion, drizzled with olive oil, shimmered like Venetian glass,” sighs my daughter.
I try arranging the vegetables in different ways. Sometimes I create circular layers, reminiscent of the Roman Coliseum, or occasionally I separate by color. But in the end, it all runs together like two flavors of gelato on a hot summer day.
Most vexing of all, I can’t seem to achieve the taste my family remembers. There’s no doubt that the vegetables in Italy were seasoned simply with salt, pepper, and olive oil. So I ask myself, “Shouldn’t it be easy?” “Si” I reply in Italian.
But the answer is really “No”. “I think you need to use more olive oil,” my daughter critiques, “or maybe more salt.”
In my effort to achieve authentic Italian flavor, I’m considering all components. Maybe it’s a matter of sea salt versus kosher. Possibly I have to grind the pepper myself rather than using ground pepper from the supermarket. Perhaps I need to try one of the dozens of Italian olive oils available.
I’m not giving up, although I’m beginning to wonder if it’s even possible to duplicate. There’s an essence to the Italian life that’s hard to define. But I know it has something to do with Italy’s mesmerizing history and culture. And with eating grilled eggplant on the Tiber at sunset.
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