As much as I loathe its heat, August does have a few benefits, including the return of the eggplant. Roasted and mashed into babaganoush, rolled around a filling of ricotta and fresh herbs, braised in an Indian curry or Morrocan stew or simply sliced and grilled over hot coals—aubergine may be my favorite color and my favorite food. So even though I had not yet worked my way through several eggplants from the farmer’s market last week, I was plenty happy to have a few more from our Stillman’s CSA.
Along with the eggplants, our CSA included a handful of field tomatoes, a few assorted potatoes and two enormous green bell peppers. Though nightshades such as these were once thought to be poisonous, the only real danger comes from overindulgence: eat too much of any summer vegetable and you risk not having enough room for ice cream.
A piquant Hungarian wax pepper, three substantial zucchini and a couple of fresh onions filled out my produce supply for the next few days. With my kids in camp for lunchtime all week and several evening picnics planned, I wanted to put together a dish that would taste good cold and provide plenty of leftovers.
Ratatouille was an easy way to use up the eggplant, squash, onions and tomatoes, but it lacks protein—an essential component of any meal in my book. I also find it is best enjoyed over (fluffy, warm) rice or with fresh, crusty bread, and I could not be bothered to make or buy a new loaf each day. A casserole incorporating the potatoes addressed the starch issue, but it was essentially a baked ratatouille; like the stovetop version, this was missing protein. With a luscious egg-and-cheese custard, this torte seemed more on the mark, though some comments cautioned that it was rather time-consuming. A layer of potatoes, as called for in the other casserole, would balance out the richness, but I worried that it would dull a recipe that already looked a little bland as written.
Borrowing a few more elements from the rejected recipe, I upped the garlic and grabbed more thyme from the garden to layer between the roasted vegetables. Slivered, the moderately hot wax pepper added a little punch to the tomato sauce, which turned out to be more deliciously melting onion than tomato.
Since some reviews declared the custard quantity too skimpy, I decided to increase it a bit. Skimming the ingredients, I recalculated butter, eggs, flour, milk, and...six ounces of Parmagiano-Reggiano? Scaled up, that would be eight ounces—half a pound. It seemed like a pricey addition, but I swallowed hard and opened up my cheese drawer. I found only one wedge, with maybe three ounces of cheese still left on the rind, just barely enough for the topping. Looking for something else to fill out the custard, my eye landed on a package of feta. With eggplant, tomatoes and a bechamel-based custard, this dish was already reminiscent of moussaka. Inspired by this Greek flair, I dashed outside for a handful of oregano and parsley.
I will not deny that this dish was time-consuming, but it was the sort of mindless kitchen puttering you can do while chatting with a friend or getting lost in a daydream. And the end result was so satisfying, so decadent, that I think it was worth it. Especially for the leftovers.
Adapted from Epicurious
Serves 6-8 as a main course, 12 as a side dish
Active Time: 1 1/2 – 2 hours
Total Time: 2 1/2 – 3 hours
- 2 medium-large eggplants (about 2 pounds)
- 2-3 large zucchini
- 2-3 medium-large green bell peppers
- 2 medium white or gold potatoes (about 1 1/2 pounds)
- 2 large onions
- 3 cloves garlic
- 1 wax pepper or other relatively mild chile pepper (optional)
- 4 medium-large field tomatoes or 6-8 roma tomatoes
- 1 Tbsp finely chopped fresh sage leaves (about 5 large leaves)
- 2 sprigs fresh thyme
- 2-3 Tbsp finely chopped fresh mixed thyme, oregano, and parsley leaves
- up to 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil, for sauteing and roasting
- 3 Tbsp butter
- 4 Tbsp flour
- 2 cups milk
- 1 cup heavy cream
- 5 ounces feta cheese, crumbled (about 1 cup)
- 4 eggs
- 2 ounces Parmigiano-Reggiano, grated (about 2/3 cup)
- sea salt
- freshly ground black pepper
Place racks in upper and lower thirds of oven and preheat oven to 450 degrees. Line two large baking sheets or roasting pans with parchment paper or foil (for easier clean-up). Peel eggplant if desired, and slice into rounds about 1/4-inch thick. Sprinkle eggplant lightly with salt and place in a colander or on several plates; the salt will draw out moisture while you prepare the other vegetables.
Halve bell peppers, scrape out ribs and seeds, and slice thinly. Halve zucchini crosswise, then cut lengthwise into 1/4-inch thick slices. Peel potatoes if desired, then slice into rounds about 1/8-inch thick. Toss pepper slices with olive oil to coat and arrange on one baking sheet in a single layer. Brush zucchini slices with olive oil on both sides and arrange on second baking sheet. (If zucchini does not all fit in one layer, reserve some for the next round of roasting.) Roast peppers and zucchini for about 20 minutes or until tender, flipping zucchini slices and switching the positions of the pans after the first 10 minutes. Drain roasted vegetables on paper towels. Brush remaining zucchini and potato slices with oil and roast 20 minutes. Blot salted eggplant with paper towels, brush with oil, and roast it the same way. Vegetables may be roasted up to 2 days in advance and stored in the refrigerator, tightly covered.
While vegetables are roasting, prepare the tomato-onion sauce. Peel and halve onions lengthwise and slice very thinly. Mince garlic. Chop tomatoes, retaining juices. Heat 2 Tbsp olive oil in a large skillet or saute pan over medium heat. Add sliced onion and about 1/4 tsp salt to pan and cook, stirring occasionally, until onion is softened, about 10 minutes. Add garlic, lower heat to medium-low, and cook another 5-10 minutes or until any liquid given off by onions has evaporated. Stir in chopped tomatoes and their juices, thyme sprigs and chopped sage. Raise heat to medium-high and bring to a boil, then lower heat again and let sauce simmer uncovered, stirring occasionally, until thickened, about 30 minutes. Sauce may be made up to two days in advance and stored in the refrigerator, tightly covered.
When ready to assemble and bake the casserole, make the custard. Melt the butter in a 2 – 3 quart saucepan over medium-low heat. Add the flour and cook for 3 minutes, whisking constantly and adjusting heat as necessary to prevent the flour from burning. Pour in 1/2 cup milk and whisk vigorously to break up lumps; the mixture will be very thick. Slowly add the rest of the milk and the cream while whisking to incorporate. Continue to cook over medium-low heat for about 5 minutes, whisking constantly, until mixture is thick enough to coat a wooden spoon. Lower heat, add feta and mix until cheese is just melted. Remove from heat, season with pepper to taste, cover pan and let cool for 5 – 10 minutes. Beat eggs together in a small bowl; add to slightly cooled custard in a steady drizzle, whisking constantly to prevent clumping.
Place rack in the center of the oven and preheat oven to 400 degrees. Drain any accumulated liquid from roasted vegetables. Lightly oil the bottom and sides of a 9x13 pan or other wide 3-quart casserole dish. Arrange half of the eggplant slices in the pan a single layer, overlapping as necessary; use slightly more than half the eggplant if needed to cover the bottom of the pan. Sprinkle with half of the chopped herbs and spoon over about half of the tomato-onion sauce. Pour about 1/3 of the custard evenly over the sauce, then top with half of the zucchini slices and half of the peppers, pressing them down gently into the custard. Arrange potato slices in a single layer, followed by remaining eggplant. Sprinkle with the rest of the chopped herbs and then spoon over the rest of the tomato-onion sauce. Pour about half of remaining custard evenly over the sauce, and arrange remaining zucchini and peppers over the custard. Pour remaining custard over zucchini and peppers and sprinkle grated Parmagiano-Reggiano on top.
Bake for 40-45 minutes or until custard is set and top is browned in places. Let stand 10 minutes before serving.