A delicious, “culinary joke” from Sicily. Mulinciani ‘mbuttunati is a typical summer dish of whole aubergines cooked in tomato sauce, with a twist though. A deep slit is made into the aubergine belly (turning it into a “button hole”) and the usual suspects of much Southern Italian cooking are inserted into it, garlic, pecorino cheese, basil/mint (the “buttons”). Here you have it: buttoned up aubergines!
This is a simple but rather lengthy dish to cook, however it keeps remarkably well, in fact it even improves with time – so make a big batch and enjoy it over few days.
Mulinciani‘mbuttunati/Buttoned up aubergines, a.k.a stuffed Sicilian aubergines
Tinned whole plum tomatoes – 2 x 400 g cans
Basil leaves – a small handful. You need basil for the tomato sauce, for the aubergines and some just before serving
Aubergines – 4 medium-sized
Garlic – 3 or 4 cloves, slivered
Caciocavallo/Provolone/Pecorino Romano Cheese – 50 g approx, in slivers + extra for grating
Extra virgin olive oil – be generous
First prepare the tomato sauce. Pour the tomatoes into a squat pan and squash them with your hands (alternatively, cut them up when they are still in the tin, using scissors – less fun though). Add a glug of olive oil, a knob of butter (this would be heresy to many Southern Italy cooks, but it adds a welcome sweetness), some salt and few basil leaves. Thirty minutes at a lazy simmer should be enough, stirring occasionally.
Meanwhile prep the aubergines. Wash them, leave the green top on (for the look), cut a deep slit into the belly of each one and gently pry it open a bit – you can be a bit rough here, but the aubergine must remain whole.
Push down each slit a few slivers of garlic and cheese, some basil and a little salt. The more of this stuffing that goes inside, the better.
Generously oil a large pan and place the aubergines in a single layer. Cook on low (partially covered) until the aubergines soften and collapse a little, 30-40 minutes approximately, turning them from time to time.
Add the tomato sauce and simmer for 45-60 minutes, partially covered. In the end the aubergines must be very tender at their thickest point. Breaking with Sicilian tradition, grate some cheese all over – think “snow”.
Let it rest for at least half an hour before eating – most aubergine dishes are much better at room temperature and benefit from a good rest. Drizzle some olive oil & scatter some extra basil leaves on top.
The next day it is even better, warmed up in a very slow oven until barely warm.
On the tomato sauce: I use Italian San Marzano canned tomatoes whenever possible (they can be hard to get hold of). San Marzano tomatoes are more expensive than other plum tomatoes, but they are also sweeter and more succulent – worth every extra penny. Make sure you buy “San Marzano tomatoes”, not just a generic “Italian plum tomatoes”. If you are lucky enough to be living in a sun-drenched land where gorgeous, juicy tomatoes are grown, use them of course (and envious I will be).
You might want to add mint to this dish – it’s traditional but not to my taste.
I have seen recipes in which the stuffed aubergines are first deep fried and then simmered in the tomato sauce.
Rinsed capers could be added to the sauce towards the end of cooking – easy with the salt.
Leftovers can be used as a pasta sauce by chopping up the aubergines; they also make fantastic sandwich filling (a Good Fellas sort of sandwich). In both cases, a few chunks (blobs?) of buffalo mozzarella would be a wise addition.