What I learnt about eggplant from my friend Daniela

We were staying with our good friends, kiwi, Malcolm and Italian, Daniela last year at their place in Tuscany (www.thelazyolive.com). Because they are great cooks and caterers, we did a lot of cooking there. My idea of a great holiday!

Whenever I am there I always learn a couple of new things. Apart seeing Malcolm make his excellent potato puree with mascarpone, and cauliflower sformato (mousse) with creamy parmesan sauce and fresh white truffles (amazing!!), I saw Daniela cook eggplant without it soaking up too much oil, or having to salt it first to prevent it from doing this.

What she did was to slice the eggplant about 1cm thick. She heated a large frying pan over high heat until very hot and placed the eggplant slices side by side and allowed them to brown (it also occurred to me that you could also use the barbecue to do this) She used no oil. It took a little while to brown but once well browned on each side, the eggplant slices were cooked with an appetising slightly smoky flavour and of course not in the least bit greasy as so often happens with fried eggplant. She did several batches until there was enough for lunch.

I had never seen eggplant done like this. She simply then put the eggplant slices on a serving plate, drizzled plenty of their own extra virgin olive oil over the top with a little chopped garlic, parsley, pepper and salt and served it. Sensational!

She did the same thing with radicchio leaves and you could also do it with zucchini sliced lengthways.

Again, one small thing learnt but I know I will use this forever.

Eggplant (or radicchio or zucchini) done like this are also great as a background for barbecued chicken or steak and you can add things like lemon zest, a little wine vinegar or lemon juice to turn it into a warm salad, cooked chickpeas and mint, finely diced preserved lemon peel, lamb meatballs and a dollop of yoghurt for a Middle Eastern spin.

Daniela is a modest cook who always says the great things I learn from her are “just something I learnt from my mother”, but I think this is often the best type of food. It is food firmly rooted in traditional cooking (Daniela is from Naples) but used in modern ways, without pretension, without chemical additives and paying attention to the quality of the ingredients to produce meals which are eaten at the shared table so is even more enjoyable.

I can’t wait to go back to Podere Finneri, their converted farmhouse about 30 minutes from Siena and learn some more from these cooks who are so generous with their knowledge.