Oven-Baked Ratatouille

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Perhaps owing to the bounty of summer produce at the market at this time of year, I inevitably wind up making ratatouille. Usually, I prepare it on top of the stove, cooking most of the vegetables individually. This year, however, I was lazy. (I’ll blame the excessive heat.) For this reason, I chose to make Mark Bittman’s oven-baked version from his book How to Cook Everything. What I especially liked about his recipe was that it called for cooking all the vegetables at the same time in the oven.

I admit that I was not totally faithful to Bittman’s recipe when it came to the amount of vegetables, the sizes in which they were cut, and the amount of olive oil. I also erroneously covered my casserole, which may have produced a more watery, though no less delicious result. The next time, I’ll choose the uncovered route. It will probably give the dish a more roasted flavor. I will also not make the mistake of scattering the fresh-herb sprigs over the vegetables, as removing them at the end of cooking was a chore.

Oven Baked Ratatouille (Adapted from Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything)

Ingredients
Ingredients

1 large eggplant, cut into 1/2 inch chunks
2 onions, chopped
2 medium zucchini, trimmed and cut into 1/2 inch chunks
2 red bell peppers, cored, seeded, and cut into 1/2 inch pieces.
2 round tomatoes, cored cut into 1/2 inch pieces
1 cup grape tomatoes
10 cloves of garlic, halved
Several sprigs fresh thyme and rosemary tied with a string for easy removal
3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper to tasteThe prepped vegetables

The prepped vegetables

Heat oven to 350 degrees F.

Film a casserole or heavy oven proof skillet dish with a couple tablespoons of the olive oil, then make a layer onion, followed by one of eggplant, zucchini, peppers, tomatoes, herbs, a sprinkling of salt and pepper, and half the the garlic (the order doesn’t matter at all). Repeat and make a second layer. Drizzle with the remaining olive oil.

The layered vegetables
The layered vegetables

Bake for about 1 to 1.5 hours, pressing down on the vegetables occasionally with a spatula, until they are all completely tender. When they are tender remove.

About mid-way through
About mid-way through

Garnish with more herbs and drizzle with a little more olive oil, and serve hot, warm, or at room temperature.

I chose to serve the ratatouille as a side dish with a roasted chicken.

Wine Pairing: Dry Rose

Eggplant Parmigiana

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Eggplant Parmigiana was definitely not a favorite dish of mine when I was growing up. Nevertheless, it was often on our table for dinner, and I was thankful that it was there only as a side dish, so I could get away with having only a “teeny weeny” slice alongside the main course.

Today, however, in our home it’s a main dish that I have come to enjoy a lot. I attribute my later-in-life appreciation of it largely to Marcella Hazan, whose recipe in Essentials of Classic Italian Cookingyields a version that is lighter than many other renderings. The reduced weight can be attributed to the fact that, in her recipe, the eggplant is simply dredged with flour rather than being coated with flour, egg and breadcrumbs before frying. She also recommends peeling the eggplant unless using the Italian baby variety.

Over time, I’ve experimented with Hazan’s recipe and have made it even lighter by using uncooked, canned crushed Italian tomatoes rather than a cooked sauce. I also skip the peeling and salting of the eggplant. I find that today’s eggplants are not as bitter as they once were, making the salt purging unnecessary. Finally, rather than slicing the eggplant lengthwise, I opt for rounds, which let’s me fry more slices at a time.

Eggplant Parmigiana  Adapted from Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking
Ingredients:
Extra virgin olive oil
1 large eggplant, sliced into 3/8 to 1/2 inch thick rounds
1 cup all-purpose flour
Salt
Unsalted butter
1 16-ounce can crushed Italian tomatoes
Parmigiano Reggiano
8 ounces fresh mozzarella, sliced thin
Fresh basil leaves

Directions:
Preheat the oven to 400°F.

Into a heavy bottomed skillet, pour the olive oil until it comes unto about 1 inch along the sides.

While the oil is heating dredge with flour as many slices of eggplant that will fit into the skillet without crowding. Do the dredging in batches, right before frying each batch, to keep the floured slices from getting soggy.

When the oil is hot, carefully place the first batch into the skillet and fry, turning each slice once, until lightly browned on both sides. Place the fried slices on a platter or a baking pan lined with paper towels to absorb any excess oil. Lightly salt the slices.

Fried eggplant slices
Fried eggplant slices

Continue frying and lightly salting in batches until all the slices are done. Do not stack the eggplant slices when they come out of the oil.

Add a pinch of salt to the uncooked canned tomatoes.

Grease an 8 x 8 inch baking dish with butter.

Line the bottom of the dish with the fried eggplant in a single layer. Spread a little less than 1/3 of the tomatoes over the eggplant. Make a layer of mozzarella and grate a liberal amount of Parmigiano Reggiano over it. Place a few torn pieces of basil over this layer.

Layering the eggplant
Layering the eggplant

Continue making layers with the eggplant, tomatoes, mozzarella, Parmigiano, and basil until you have used up the eggplant. Skip the basil on the top layer. From one large eggplant, I get about 12 slices, which in an 8 x 8 inch baking dish makes for three layers. You will most likely have some left over tomatoes.

Dot the top layer with some unsalted butter and place the dish into the upper third of the preheated oven.

Cook for about 35 minutes. The eggplant should be bubbling and the mozzarella nicely browned.

Just from the oven
Just from the oven

Allow to rest and settle for about 5 minutes before slicing and serving.

This recipe yields about 4 portions.

Wine Pairing: Bardolino

Eggplant Involtini

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Perhaps the only way I can justify subscribing to so many cooking magazines is to occasionally cook from them. After some pretty hearty meals over the past few days, I decided to look for a vegetable entree for supper.

My search took me to the recent issue of “Cook’s Illustrated” (July-August 2014), which has a wonderful recipe for Eggplant Involtini. What especially attracted me to it first was that the eggplant is baked rather than fried; next, the filling uses considerably less ricotta than many others and is, almost counter-intuitively, kept creamy with the addition of fresh white breadcrumbs; finally the tomato sauce is simple, quick cooking, and fresh tasting.

Just taken from the oven
Just taken from the oven

Another thing I liked about this recipe was that it skipped the traditional sweating of the eggplant with loads of salt to reduce the its bitterness. In fact, the article that includes the recipe explains why this salting process may no longer be necessary given today’s selective cultivating methods.

Rather than providing an edited recipe, I’m providing a link to the magazine’s website, which has a video on how to prepare this dish: Eggplant Involtini Video. The magazine says that the recipe will be online for the next four months. If you’re like me and want a hard copy, I’d say the recipe is well worth the $6.95 cover price of the magazine.

I realize that southern Italian cooking may have fallen out of fashion, but give this recipe a try to see how good it can be when it’s well prepared.

We enjoyed this dish with a wine from one of Chianti’s smallest sub-zones, Montespertoli. The producer is Sonnino, who still uses some white grapes in the blend and does not age the wine in wood. The wine is aromatic with good acidity and rich black fruit flavors.

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Wine Pairing: Sangiovese, Cabernet Franc, Alsatian Riesling