Many Italian families on my block had fig trees in their back yards. And as kids, when we discovered them, we would go on a marauding fig feast, raiding every one’s back yard that had figs. There was nothing quite as good as picking one of those dark, sweet fruits off the tree and stuffing our faces with them. Until we would get caught. And then there would be either a tapping at the window or the window would be thrown open followed by a screaming voice promising us they were going to speak to our mothers.
My neighbor, Mr and Mrs Nazzaro had a fig tree in their back yard. Mr Nazzaro put up a cyclone fence between our property the height of the fig tree to protect his figs that grew along the fence. Just in case we were tempted to pick on the fruit or two that might be hanging over on our side of the yard. What Mr Nazzaro needed was a brick wall to keep me from picking his figs. That’s how I learned to climb fences so well at an early age, picking Mr Nazarro’s figs. My neighbor Junior and I used to hoist each other up to get to the figs.
I remember many times I would be squeezing my hands through the little spaces in the fence getting at the ripest figs on the tree. I don’t think they had motion sensors back then, but more often than not I would get caught by Mrs. Nazzaro as she would violently tap on the window shooing me away from her fig trees.
But thinking back on those times, as often as Mr and Mrs Nazzaro would chase me away from their fig trees, Mrs. Nazzaro would always come calling on my mother and grandmother at the end of fig season with a plate of her figs to share with us. I thought that was really nice and showed a lot of class, in light of the fact that I used to eat twice that amount when I pillaged them on my daily raids.
Mr Nazzaro also had a peach tree next to his fig tree. I didn’t know anything about picking ripe peaches and always got a green one that was not good to eat. Along with his figs and peaches, Mr Nazzaro had a grape vine that was attached to his garage and anchored to his house, forming a canopy of grapes shading his back yard. The grapes were too far away for me to get at without a ladder. Believe me, I thought about it.
My backyard was a “farmer’s market” of good things to eat. The people that lived behind us had a huge cherry tree at the end of their backyard. The tree shaded the entire end of our back yard and was at least three stories high. Must have been an old cherry tree even back then. At the end of our back yard we had a tall telephone pole that our cloths lines were attached to and led from the pole to each of our windows. One going to the second story window of my grandmother’s apartment and the other went to a window in my sister’s room. I would climb the telephone pole, scaling the climber’s spikes that were attached to the pole. I would get to the top of the pole and would be in reach of the cherries that dangled in front of me. They were some of the sweetest cherries I had ever eaten. More than enough for me and the birds in the neighborhood. My grandmother would poke her head out the window and scream for me to get down before I broke my neck. But those cherries were worth the risk.
Growing up with all those treasures around me made me appreciate fresh picked food at an early age. When I moved up to Rockland County and had my own house it was only natural for me to be partial to plant things that you can eat, rather than looked pretty. That was one of the reasons I wanted a house with some property. I planted over 12 fruit trees along with grape vines, blueberry bushes, a strawberry patch and last but certainly not least, my own fig tree. Thank you Mr Nazzaro for giving me the inspiration and the experience of sampling some of the finer things in life.
- 3 medium eggplants
- 2 large eggs, beaten
- 1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
- 8 fresh basil leaves, chopped fine
- 1 1/2 – 2 1/2 cups breadcrumbs
- 1 tablespoon minced garlic
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- black pepper
- olive oil mixed with vegetable oil for shallow frying
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
Slice off the top of the eggplant and cut the eggplant in half lengthwise and place on a cookie sheet. Sprinkle the surface of the eggplant with some olive oil. Score the eggplant in three places to help in the cooking process.
Place the eggplant in the oven for 40-45 minutes or until the eggplant is cooked through.
Let the eggplant cool and coarsely mash half the eggplant in a large bowl and chop the other half. I leave half the skins on the eggplant. If you prefer, you can scoop the flesh out of the eggplant and discard the skins. I think the skin adds texture and goodness to the dish.
Mix the eggplant together, then add the eggs, grated cheese, minced garlic, dried oregano, basil and pepper. Add about 1/2 – 1 cup of breadcrumbs and stir until the eggplant is easy to handle and holds together. If the mixture is too moist, add more breadcrumbs.
Form the eggplant mixture into flat cakes about the size of a small egg and roll them in breadcrumbs. Pat them together till they form an oval pancake.
Heat some olive oil in a large pan over a medium low flame and add the eggplant. Allow each side to turn golden brown. Place the cooked eggplant on paper towels to absorb the extra oil.
Serve with lemon wedges.