I initially called these Alessandro’s aubergines, although he demurs that they are not his, but Palermo’s, and called Milincianeddi ammuttunati – stuffed aubergines (the milincianeddi are the variety of small aubergines that you use). I like the translation better than the Italian, because my Palermitan is terrible and I can’t pronounce it, just too many damn syllables.
You can’t move for aubergines in Sicily, they are so ubiquitous and diverse, that they make our single, cellophane wrapped supermarket offerings look nothing less than tragic. The stalls of Ballarò and shelves of every supermarket are piled high with multiple varieties – each having their own suite of cooking methods and recipes. You would only ever make parmagiana for instance with the big, purple generic variety we’re familiar with in the UK, but the giant, striped globe Tunisian variety would NEVER be used for parmigiana – these are for steaks. And if you want to stuff your aubergines, then you go for the small, stretched plum like ones , the deep purple Milincianeddi.
Your stuffing is formed from a very Sicilian trio of mint, garlic and Cacciacavello cheese. I read somewhere that the job of stuffing the aubergines was usually carried out by the grandparents, as they had the time and the patience to sit in the corner, making small slits and inserting slivers of herbs and cheese. Now I have no grandparents to perch in the corner of my kitchen (also, I’m perilously close to my own old age anyway), so this is a job I have to do myself. It’s not that onerous really, and it leaves your fingers smelling minty and garlicky. Which I am fond of.
So, in each small aubergine, you want to make maybe 10-12 small slits down, into which you slide a leaf of mint, a sliver of garlic and a piece of cheese. You need to make sure that they are totally hidden, so that they don’t fall out when you start to cook (although as the cheese melts, it will often bubble out anyway) The garlic and mint will infuse the impressionable aubergine flesh with their aromas, and the cheese will melt and merge into it, to sublime effect.
In deep olive oil, fry your aubergines, turning them to ensure they’re evenly browned and then when they’re coloured, remove from the oil and put them in an oven dish with enough passata to cover them. Cook them in a medium oven for 20-30 minutes, so that the flavours mingle into the sauce, and then, serve it up with crusty warm bread. The Sicilian prefers do this second stage of cooking on the hob, in a saucepan, but I think that oven baking is more gentle and allows the flavours to blend more evenly. There’s an added extra that you get some additional caramel flavours developing from the crust that forms. The aubergines will have some bitterness from the frying, but the sweet mint and tomato sauce balance this out, whilst the silky, cooked aubergine will be beautifully enhanced by the garlic and enriched by the cheese.