Melissa Clark’s Sheet Pan Ratatouille

Caponata, that richly delicious blend of eggplant, peppers, onions and tomatoes, has been my go-to summer vegetable stew for years.

Eggplant caponata

Ratatouille is basically caponata with the addition of zucchini and quite a bit more olive oil, but until this year I’d never made it. Now, though, thanks to my friend Nancy and to Melissa Clark and her NYTimes “A Good Appetite” column, ratatouille is in serious competition with caponata for favorite summer vegetable stew.  The zucchini adds another surprisingly rich layer of flavor to the caponata blend, and as an additional bonus, zucchini’s place in ratatouille is a great way to use this always-abundant summer vegetable.

I had noticed Clark’s recipe for sheet-pan ratatouille in a recent column, and been intrigued by both her article title, Ratatouille, Simplified and Just as Satisfying and the opening line of her recipe description: “Cooking ratatouille on a sheet pan in the oven isn’t just easier than cooking it in a pot on the stove, it’s also better: richer and more deeply caramelized in flavor.” The “richer and more deeply caramelized” definitely spoke to me, but it was Nancy’s endorsement that spurred me to try it.  Not only is this ratatouille yummy, Nancy emailed, “The ratio of effort vs reward is heavy on the reward.”  Here, at the end of summer, with the last of the season’s harvest coming on, an easy recipe was very appealing.

Ratatouille ingredients

Clark’s method combines quick vegetable preparation and simple sheet pan technique.  Slice the zucchini into ¼ inch rounds, the onion into thin slices, the eggplant into inch-chunks and the peppers into chunks or strips.  Combine the zucchini and onion on one sheet pan and the eggplant and red pepper on the other.  Add garlic, springs of rosemary and thyme, salt and ¼ cup of olive oil to each pan and toss.

Rataouille raw on pans

Put both pans in a 425 oven and roast for 40 minutes, turning the vegetables two or three times with a spatula.  At first, the vegetables will give off liquid, then they will reabsorb it and begin to caramelize, all on the sheet pans, in the oven, out of sight.  The final time-saving step is simply scattering cherry tomatoes over the eggplant and pepper pan where they burst and melt into the caramelized eggplant and pepper, covering them in a quick and easy tomato sauce.   The additions of goat cheese and olives are delicious too, but even without them, this dish is a lovely celebration of the end of summer.

Ratatouille roasted on pan

Sheet-Pan Ratatouille with Goat Cheese and Olives

1 large onion, halved and thinly sliced

1 ¾ pounds zucchini, cut into 1/4-inch slices (about 7 cups)

½ cup plus 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for serving

6 thyme sprigs

4 rosemary sprigs

6 garlic cloves, smashed and peeled

Fine sea salt, as needed

2 pounds eggplant, cut into 1-inch cubes (about 10 cups)

2 medium red bell peppers, sliced into 1/2-inch slices (about 3 cups)

3 cups cherry tomatoes (12 ounces)

8 ounces goat cheese, crumbled

¾ cup Castelvetrano or other good-quality olives, crushed, pitted, and torn into pieces

Lemon wedges, for serving

PREPARATION

  1. Heat oven to 425 degrees, and arrange two racks in the top and bottom thirds.
  2. On one rimmed 13-by-17-inch sheet pan, toss together onion slices, zucchini, 1/4 cup oil, 3 thyme springs, 2 rosemary sprigs, 3 garlic cloves and 1/2 teaspoon salt.
  3. On a second rimmed baking sheet, toss together eggplant, red peppers, 1/4 cup oil, 3 thyme sprigs, 2 rosemary sprig, 3 garlic cloves and 3/4 teaspoon salt.
  4. Place one tray on the top rack, and a second on the bottom rack of the oven. Roast both for 40 minutes, stirring vegetables two or three times.
  5. Add tomatoes to the baking sheet with eggplant and peppers, then continue to roast until the tomatoes burst and the zucchini turn deeply golden brown, another 20 to 25 minutes. The vegetables will become very caramelized, and that’s a good thing, particularly with the zucchini and onions.
  6. Transfer zucchini and onions to the baking sheet with eggplant, mix well, and spread in an even layer (it will just fit). Drizzle vegetables with another 1 tablespoon oil, then sprinkle goat cheese and olives over the top. Roast until goat cheese is soft and warmed through, 5 to 10 minutes.
  7. Transfer vegetables to a serving platter, drizzle with a little more oil and squeeze juice from the one of the lemon wedges over the top. Garnish with basil leaves. Serve hot or warm, with more lemon wedges on the side.

 

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The First Eggplant of Summer

I was checking the eggplant in the plastic greenhouse the other day, hoping I’d see a few small, dark purple vegetables forming among the lavender blossoms of the Galine and Diamond plants.  Instead, to my great surprise, I found, nestled in the mulch beneath the robust green plants, some really big eggplant.  Yikes!  I know it’s been warm, but I really hadn’t expected eggplant this soon. Dinner suddenly included eggplant.

Eggplant growing

Eggplant counter

Harvesting five big purple globes and bringing them to the kitchen, I turned the oven on to 475 and cut the largest two lengthwise into wedges.  I arranged the wedges on a sheet pan, brushed them generously on all sides with olive oil, sprinkled them with salt and pepper and, when the oven reached 475, I put the pan in the oven.

Eggplant wedges raw

Eggplant roastedTwenty minutes later, the wedges had softened into creamy, sweet and slightly smoky eggplant flesh.

Half of them went onto our dinner plates, a perfect side dish for basil pesto on linguine, sugar snap peas and Orange Paruche cherry tomatoes.  We ate dinner outside, celebrating the start of high summer meals.

Eggplant dinner

I put the remaining roasted eggplant into the Cuisinart to make a spread I discovered a few years ago.  This Charred Eggplant and Tahini Spread is one of the best reasons to grow eggplant.

Charred Eggplant and Tahini Spread

http://www.bonappetit.com/recipe/charred-eggplant-and-tahini-spread

  • 1 large eggplant, cut lengthwise into quarters
  • ¼ cup olive oil, plus more for drizzling
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 clove garlic finely grated
  • 1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
  • 1 tablespoon tahini (sesame seed paste)
  • ¾ teaspoon ground cumin

     Toasted sesame seeds

 Preheat oven to 475°. Place eggplant on a baking sheet and toss with ¼ cup oil; season with salt and pepper. Roast until lightly charred and very tender, 20–25 minutes; let cool slightly. Chop eggplant (skin and all) until almost a paste.

Mix eggplant in a medium bowl with garlic, lemon zest, lemon juice, tahini, and cumin; season with salt and pepper. Drizzle with oil and top with sesame seeds.  Makes 1 and ½ cups.

Eggplant spread

There are a lot of other reasons to grow eggplant. From the remaining eggplant from this first harvest I made grilled eggplant, dried tomato and goat cheese pasta sauce from Jack Bishop’s Pasta & Verdura, 140 Vegetable Sauces for Spaghetti, Fusilli, Rigatoni, and All Other Noodles (1996).

Bishop 1

Bishop 2

Bishop 3

Eggplant pasta

Looking ahead to more eggplant harvests, there’s eggplant pizza, our favorite summer pizza, and for a dinner party or even just the two of us, Ottolenghi’s eggplant stuffed with lamb and pine nuts from his cookbook Jerusalem (2012).  Finally, as the tomatoes and peppers ripen, there is caponata, the perfect summer stew.  And with any excess eggplants, I’ll keep making the Charred Eggplant and Tahini Spread, great on sandwiches for lunch, on crackers or appetizers or simply by the spoonful.

Eggplant!

Eggplant completes the trio of summer vegetables that began with tomatoes and peppers. It has a smoky, creamy flavor that mixes perfectly with the spicy sweetness of peppers and the acid sweetness of tomatoes to become caponata, the stew of eggplant, peppers and tomatoes, along with some onion, garlic and fresh basil, that signals high summer to me.  I make it as often as I can this time of year.

I use the recipe in Nancy Harmon Jenkins’ Flavors of Tuscany (1998).  I especially like the cooking sequence she suggests: sauté the eggplant first until it is browned then remove it from the skillet; sauté the peppers, onions and garlic until they are soft; return the eggplant to the pan and add several peeled, chopped tomatoes and cook at a fairly high heat until the tomatoes have broken down and formed a thick sauce that coats the other ingredients. I serve it at room temperature with slivered fresh basil stirred in.

The proportions for one batch are a pound of eggplant, two large sweet bell peppers, one medium onion and one garlic clove, three very ripe tomatoes and a handful of basil.  I often make a double batch.

But eggplant alone is delicious too, sliced and grilled and slipped between pieces of bread for a sandwich or scattered on pizza dough with garlic and fresh mozzarella or tossed on pasta with some goat cheese and a few dried tomatoes.

Jack Bishop’s Pasta & Verdura, 140 Vegetable Sauces for Spaghetti,Fusilli, Rigatoni, and All Other Noodles (1996) is the source for the grilled eggplant, dried tomato and goat cheese pasta sauce.  My friend Heleen and I started making this sauce years ago and it’s still a favorite.  Alice Water’s Chez Panisse Pasta, Pizza & Calzone (1984) is the source for the eggplant pizza topping, so simple yet a perfect showcase for grilled eggplant.  It’s a favorite of my friend Kathy.

Bishop’s book is out of print but a Google search suggests that many copies are still available from different sources.  It’s an inspiring book and worth tracking down.  Water’s wonderful book is still in print and like Bishop’s has many suggestions for using eggplant.

Growing eggplant poses the same challenge that tomatoes and peppers do in our cool climate: providing extra heat with a cloche or greenhouse.  I start seeds indoors in mid-March, the same time I start peppers, set plants out in a cloche or greenhouse in mid-May and start harvesting eggplant in early August.  This year, as I have for the past several years, I grew Diamond, Rosita and Rosa Bianca, a purple, a mostly lavender and a mostly white eggplant, all from Fedco seeds and all productive this year despite the cool temperatures.

According to the Fedco catalog descriptions of these three varieties, plantsman Kent Whealy brought Diamond back from the Ukraine in 1993.  “The slender fruits with firm flesh and pleasing texture are entirely lacking in that bitter eggplant taste.”

Rosita came to the United States from Puerto Rico in 1979.  “A truly sublime eggplant, Rosita is early, productive and tasty without a hint of bitterness.  These pear-shaped pink-lavender fruits with white shoulders are 6–8″ long and 4–6″ wide.”  Rosa Bianca is an Italian heirloom that some consider “‘the best eggplant in the universe,’ with a creamy consistency and delicate flavor and gorgeous fruits, white with lavender streaking down the side.”

Many cookbook writers bring up the issue of bitterness and recommend salting the eggplants before cooking to remove it.  Other cookbook writers say that fresh, just-picked eggplants won’t be bitter, and that’s been my experience, mostly.  But, because I’ve read that cool temperatures and irregular watering can contribute to bitterness, I taste a thin slice of each eggplant before cooking with it just to be sure there’s no bitterness.  If I taste any bitterness, I’ll salt it by sprinkling either slices or chunks with salt, letting it sit for an hour, then rinsing quickly and pressing dry with a towel before sautéing or grilling.

While I have good methods for preserving tomatoes and peppers for winter eating, I haven’t come up with a good way to carry eggplant into another season.  Maybe that’s what makes eggplant an even more special summer treat.