I first discovered this melanzane sott’olio (eggplant preserved in oil) when a few jars of it arrived for my boyfriend in Torino in one of the regular boxes of food sent from his mother down South.
It was love at first bite. I remember I ate the slices of eggplant on bread as an appetizer before dinner and also used bread to mop up the remaining olive oil.
R’s mother regularly jars a variety of her own food, and when she found out how much I liked the eggplant, she offered to teach me how to make it when I was in Matera on vacation.
The recipe is not difficult, but the eggplant is prepared in stages with long waits in between steps, so it ends up taking a couple a days to finish everything. But while you’re waiting, you just leave it out on the counter and can go do other things.
I’ll tell you now that once you’ve finished, you then have to wait one week for the eggplant to be ready to eat. (Before you can eat another kind of preserved eggplant I learned how to make, in which the eggplant is cut into strips, you have to wait one month.) But I don’t mind. I value deliberate processes that produce homemade staples, rather than buying everything from the store.
We started with about 2.5 kilos of medium-sized eggplant (about 5.5 pounds).
Continue until all of the eggplant is sliced and in the bowl. Cover the eggplant with a large upside down pot lid and put something heavy on top to press the eggplant down (we use a pot with something else inside).
Back to work. Pour about 2/3 of a liter of white wine vinegar and 1/3 of a liter of water in a large pot. That’s about three cups of vinegar and 1 1/2 cups of water- it doesn’t have to be exact. Add (what seemed like) a couple tablespoons of salt and bring to a boil.
Drain a large handful of eggplant slices (that were soaking in the bowl) in a colander and put them in the pot. When the mixture comes back to a boil, wait one minute and then take them out with a slotted spoon.
*n.b. If you plan to eat the eggplant right away, you can cook them longer- about a minute and half, but no longer than two minutes, and the final result will be softer. If you are planning to make a lot and conserve the jars for longer, just cook them for thirty seconds after the re-boil and they will last longer.
Spread them in a single layer on a cotton towel in a big pan or large baking sheet. Use a cotton towel because it absorbs the liquid- otherwise the eggplant will be too watery.
Continue the process of boiling batches of eggplant and spreading them out on the towel. When you use up one towel, put another one on top and make another layer of eggplant. We ended up with three layers. Cover the top with a final towel (or paper towels) and let cool about an hour.
Take glass jars and put a little extra virgin olive oil in the bottom. Start placing the slices in the jars, layering them as best you can without spaces in between and keeping the level flat. Pushing them down every so often with a wooden spoon helps.
When the jars are full, cover with more oil.
Then take a long thin knife and slide it in the jars between the eggplant and the wall of the jar- press it inward to get rid of air pockets. You will see air bubbles appearing and rising up and then the liquid will be still. Do that all around the jar. It’s necessary to get rid of the air or the eggplant will go bad.
Leave the jars open and let them sit for a few hours. This will let them settle a little more. Then top with oil to completely cover, wipe the rims with a clean damp cloth, let dry, and put on the lids (we let them sit overnight and put the lids on the next morning).
I’ll end with a few notes about the process:
–You don’t need to seal the jars with pressure or heat, and you don’t need to refrigerate the jars after opening. The oil is enough to preserve the eggplant.
-Only use a clean fork or other utensil in the jar to avoid contamination. After you eat some of the eggplant, push the remaining eggplant in the jar down with a clean fork or spoon until it is completely submerged in the remaining oil. It might be necessary to add more oil to cover them.
–We used extra virgin olive oil to cover the eggplant in all of the steps of this recipe. In Italy, this type of oil is affordable. Your cost will go up in a place like the US where extra virgin olive oil is more expensive. You can use regular olive oil (instead of extra virgin) or seed oil (like sunflower) to save money. Just know that the taste will be different (R’s mom says it won’t be as good).
However, while a lot of oil is used in the recipe, it is not wasted. The oil comes out with the eggplant slices and is eaten along with it. If you add the eggplant to salad, the oil on the slices can be used to dress the salad. If you eat it with bread, the oil flavors the bread, or you can mop up the excess on your plate with bread. When you finish all the eggplant, the remaining oil in the jar can be used for anything you would normally use olive oil for.
As always, buon appetito!