Imitation and Flattery

Charles Caleb Colton, English writer, cleric and collector (1780-1832) is little known to most people today. But his aphorism - "Imitation is the sincerest (form) of flattery" - is familiar in some form to most everyone.  And, how true it is.  I cannot count how many times have I have been to restaurants or in people's homes where I have had something delectable to eat at the table.  My first reaction is, "I want to make this!"  From my friends, I often extract recipes, but from restaurants I am at a loss.  Countless times I have written to Bon Appétit or Gourmet Magazine and asked for a recipe to no avail.  So I am left to my own devices to figure out just how the chefs have made these dishes,  and I do my best to recreate - ergo imitate - their artistry.  While sometimes I come close, I have - on occasion - succeeded to the point where I am not only happy with the results but feel I have surpassed the fine chef!  (Okay, this is a rare moment...)

Once upon a time, about 20 years ago, I was visiting San Francisco with my then future ex.  We were having a great time - tastings at wineries in Napa, Sonoma and Carneros valleys, museum crawls, visits with family and friends - and we were doing all this on a shoestring.  We saved our money for one fantastic meal out.  We conducted our research using newspaper articles, magazines and guides (pre-Internet, of course) and came down to an Italian restaurant in the Marina district called Pane e Vino, ... Bread and Wine.  We were not disappointed!

And it was truly one of those moments where I had a dish that made my taste buds soar. It was a simple first course called timbale di malanzane e salmone and it was served with a spicy tomato sauce. I obsessed about this dish for years, making any number of versions until I finally came up with one I liked.  The eggplant must be grilled just right, and not cut too thick.  The salmon needed to be lighter - a mousse, perhaps?  And the sauce had to have just the right piquancy to set off the deep, rich flavors of the other ingredients.

Assuming that was 1990 (which I think it was...), I  will flash forward now to 2007, a mere 17 years later.  Mark and I had recently moved to Tucson - our mid-life epiphany (no crisis) - and I was out to dinner with two of my favorite arts supporters, Marsha and Gary.  We went to a little Italian restaurant they wanted to introduce me to, one that others had recommended highly, as well - Tavolino.  I am always game for authentic Italian and they assured me that this was the ticket.

After ordering a nice Barolo, we opened our menus and started to peruse.  As I started down the list of  antipasti, my heart skipped a beat.  Really?  Timballo di melanzane e salmone??  I had remembered it as a timbale not timballo... could this be the same?  I immediately called over our server and asked, if by chance, the chef/owner (Massimo Tenino) had ever worked in a restaurant called Pane e Vino in San Francisco.  She said that she knew he came form California, but she would ask.  As in many small trattorie, we were not far form the kitchen and I suddenly hear an exclamatory burst of laughter.  Out came Massimo to our table asking, "Which one of you recognized my dish?"  He had, indeed, been a chef in the kitchen when I visited San Francisco, moving to Tucson several years later to raise his children.  He also opened his own restaurant which, just month ago, moved to within a 5-minute walk from our home.  I should add that this is probably our favorite restaurant in Tucson.

That visit to San Francisco was 20 years ago, and my ex and I are still friends, although separated by thousands of miles.  I have been making this timbale for Mark for the 15 years we have been together and today is the first time I have written down the recipe.  After 20 years, the version I have created is a bit different from Massimo's - no better, just different.  And, served with a simple salad, it is a great light supper.  I sincerely hope that Massimo is, per C.C. Colton, sincerely flattered at my imitation.

– David

Timable di Melanzane e Salmone, Salsa Piccante

3-4 baby eggplant, preferably Italian or Japanese
extra virgin olive oil
8 ounces fresh salmon, skinned and cut into 1-inch chunks
1 egg
3 tablespoons cream
2 tablespoons chopped fresh chives
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
2 tablespoons butter
1 large shallot, minced
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
2 cups crushed tomatoes
8 large basil leaves
salt and pepper to taste

Preheat a gas or electric grill, or heat a ridged grill pan on the stove. Cut the eggplants lengthwise into 3/16-inch slices, discarding the end pieces or saving them for another purpose.  Brush them liberally with olive oil and grill for a couple of minutes per side, being careful not to char them.  (Cooking this on an outdoor grill will infuse the eggplant with a smokiness that plays well with the salmon.) Set the slices on a plate to cool.

Place the salmon, egg, cream, chives, salt and pepper in a food processor and purée to create the mousse.  Cover the bowl of the food processor and place in the refrigerator until you are ready to use the mixture.

Preheat oven to 350ºF.  Lightly oil 4 ramekins (about 3/4 cup capacity) and line them with the eggplant slices so that they just come up to the rim.  Divide the mousse among the prepared ramekins and cover each with a small square of aluminum foil.  Place on a cookie sheet and bake, covered, for 20 minutes.  Remove the foil and bake 10 more minutes.  

While the timbales bake, melt the butter in a small saucepan.  Add shallots and sauté until clear.  Add red pepper flakes and cook one minute longer.  Add the crushed tomatoes and simmer, partially covered to avoid splattering.  About five minutes before the timbales are done, add the basil leaves and adjust seasoning.  Cook for 2 minutes and then, using a stick blender (or regular blender or food processor), purée the sauce.

Remove the timbales from the oven after their full 30 minutes and let them sit 1 minute.  Place 2-3 tablespoons sauce on each plate.  Invert the timbales onto a separate plate, one by one, and then carefully place it on the puddle of sauce.  Garnish with additional basil, if desired.


  1. This is a love story. About food. In this case, a particular dish: Timbale di Milanzane e Salmone that touched David's palate 20 years ago, leaving him forever wanting more. Though nothing can bring back the San Francisco meal; of splendor at Pane and Vino, glory in the timbale, David searches. He will grieve not, as he endeavors to create his own. He enlists Mark and they are eventually satisfied, but the memory of the original lingers. Then, by some cosmic stroke of culinary serendipity, David is reunited with his beloved Timbale...and its creator. Ah, but is it the same? It seems it doesn't matter as David and Mark have their own....and, now, we can be enchanted, too. Thank you so much--loved your post! (Apologies to Wordsworth!)

  2. Thanks, Susan! Even if Wordsworth may not approve, I do! Let me know when you try these!

  3. What a great coincidence. Isn't it amazing?
    Loved this story David. And the dish looks fantastic!

  4. Thanks, Magda - if you ever make it, let me know your thoughts and any changes you would make!


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