An Eggplant Casserole That’s Full of Memories
Shared by Alison Negrin
Recipe Roots: Yannena, Greece > Bronx, NY
Stella Negrin came over from Yannena, a city in northern Greece, to the United States as a teenager in the early 1900s. Her family touched down at Ellis Island and lived briefly in the Lower East Side before eventually settling in the Bronx. Alison Negrin, a professional chef and culinary instructor and the granddaughter of Stella, was born in the Bronx, as was her late father, David. “She was larger than life and an incredible storyteller,” says Alison of her grandma Stella. “All of her grandchildren would sit around her chair and she told stories about growing up in New York.” Stella was also an excellent cook. “She was so serious in the kitchen, you couldn’t really talk to her when she was cooking,” says Alison. “I’m like that, too.”
Even though she wasn’t permitted to help, Alison was allowed to sit with her grandmother and watch her work. “You’d open up her refrigerator and see feta cheese in milky liquid and kalamata olives, whereas most of my friends ate Ashkenazi food,” says Alison. “Our food was so different from others and I really liked it.” She was also adept at pastry, making phyllo dough from scratch, which she used to make spinach and cheese pies. “It wasn’t thin like you’d buy it,” recalls Alison. “It was irregular with these little pockets, but it was really delicious. She had these arthritic hands and you would see these knotty fingers pulling the dough.”
But perhaps the most memorable dish for Alison was kapema (pronounced KA-pe-ma), the savory eggplant-tomato dish that she shared with the Jewish Food Society. Stella always made the slow-cooked eggplant casserole in the summer, and Alison, her siblings and her late father David, would tear off pieces of rye bread and dunk it right into the stewy, tangy dish. “I remember my dad doing that, scooping up the sauces,” says Alison.
Though Alison learned to make kapema, she got the recipe from her uncle, Norman, who used to run a luncheonette called the Chateau Coffee House on Long Island. “I didn’t really start cooking her food until much later in my life and she was gone,” says Alison, who has been living in California for many years. She prefers to make the dish in late summer, when tomatoes and eggplant are at their peak. “To me it epitomizes both the bounty of the delicious tomatoes, eggplant and olive oil,” says Alison. “It’s so simple and it’s so different, everything gets so caramelized, and the addition of paprika almost brings a sour bitter tinge.” This summer, Uncle Norman is coming out to visit her. “I plan to make it for him.”