One of the simplest and best is Spanish escalivada, a Catalan specialty. The vegetables are simply roasted in pieces, mixed gently and served sprinkled with extra virgin olive oil, minced fresh garlic, salt and freshly ground pepper.
Similar salads are made in the Balkans, sometimes with chilies added. The vegetables might be finely diced or even pureed to form a spread, which gains a vivid red hue if the peppers chosen are red ones.
Moroccan cooks use the same vegetables to achieve a different effect. They dice eggplant small and cook it in oil with diced zucchini, crushed garlic, paprika and salt, and then simmer the mixture with diced tomatoes. Separately grilled peppers, both sweet and hot, are later added to simmer briefly with the other vegetables. Served hot or cold, this lively starter is sometimes flavored with cumin or vinegar.
Not surprisingly, Italian cooks turn the Mediterranean trio into pasta sauces. Eggplant and peppers might be grilled, and then part of the grilled eggplant is chopped and cooked in a tomato sauce. This savory sauce is tossed with penne or spaghetti and extra virgin olive oil and garnished with the grilled vegetables and fresh basil. You could consider all these dishes cousins of Provencal ratatouille, the celebrated southern French dish that features eggplant slices, zucchini, onion and peppers fried in olive oil, and then simmered in a garlicky, herb-scented tomato sauce.
The Mediterranean trio is not reserved exclusively for vegetarian dishes. In Eastern Mediterranean countries, poultry or meat might join the vegetables. Cooks in Balkan countries simmer chicken pieces with browned eggplant, peppers and tomatoes. Lebanese cooks bake the same vegetables as a casserole with lamb cubes. A Turkish specialty called eggplant kebab is sometimes made as a stew featuring lamb cubes browned with chopped onions, simmered with diced tomatoes and served atop fried eggplant slices. The peppers come as garnish, either sweet ones in strips or hot ones grilled and served whole.
EGGPLANT IN TOMATO SAUCE WITH GRILLED PEPPER STRIPS AND YOGURT-GARLIC SAUCE
In Mediterranean and Middle Eastern countries, cool yogurt garlic sauce is a popular partner for savory vegetable stews like this one, which is flavored with sauteed onion and fresh basil.
MAKES: 4 servings
- 1 3/4 pounds Japanese or small Italian eggplants, unpeeled
- 2 to 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 1 medium onion, chopped
- Salt and freshly ground pepper
- 1 pound ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped, or a 14 1/2-ounce can stewed tomatoes, preferably Italian style (with basil, garlic, oregano), with their juice
- 2 bell peppers, any color, roasted or grilled and peeled (see note below)
- 2 tablespoons shredded fresh basil
- About 1 cup plain yogurt
- 1 garlic clove, minced fine
Cut eggplant in crosswise slices about 3/8 inch thick. In a large heavy saute pan or wide casserole, heat oil, add onion and saute over medium heat for 7 minutes or until softened. Add eggplant, sprinkle with salt, and stir over heat until eggplant is coated with onion mixture. Cover and cook for 5 minutes, stirring once or twice.
Stir in tomatoes and bring to a boil. Cover and cook over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, for 15 to 20 minutes or until eggplant is tender. Cut roasted peeled peppers in strips and add to eggplant. Cover and simmer for 2 or 3 minutes to blend flavors. Stir in basil, reserving 1 or 2 teaspoons for garnish. Season to taste with pepper.
In a small bowl mix yogurt with garlic, salt and pepper to taste.
Serve eggplant hot or cold, topped with yogurt sauce and garnished with remaining shredded basil.
Note: To peel peppers, broil them, turning them often, for about 15 minutes or until their skins blister all over. Transfer peppers to a bowl and cover tightly; or put sweet and hot peppers in separate plastic bags and close bags. Let stand for 10 minutes. Peel peppers using paring knife and remove seeds.
BALKAN GRILLED EGGPLANT-PEPPER SALAD WITH TOMATOES AND CHILIES
Throw some bell peppers on the grill alongside an eggplant to prepare this tasty appetizer. Serve it with crusty bread or fresh pita.
If you like, you can broil and peel the tomatoes before dicing them and adding them to the salad. For a bright red salad, use 3 or 4 broiled red peppers; blend them in a food processor along with eggplant to a chunky puree and then stir in the finely diced tomatoes. For a milder taste, omit the chilies.
MAKES: 6 servings
- 2 long, fairly slender eggplants (about 2 pounds total)
- 2 red or green bell peppers
- 1 or 2 jalapeno peppers
- 2 medium garlic cloves, minced
- 3 tablespoons chopped Italian parsley (optional)
- 2 to 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 1 tablespoon wine vinegar (optional)
- Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
- 1 or 2 plum tomatoes, diced
- Capers (optional, for garnish)
Prick eggplants a few times with fork. Grill eggplants above medium-hot coals about 40 minutes or broil them for 25 to 30 minutes, turning often, until skin blackens and flesh is tender.
Grill or broil bell peppers and jalapeno peppers, turning them often, until their skins blister all over; bell peppers need about 15 minutes, and jalapenos need only 3 or 4 minutes. Transfer peppers to a bowl and cover tightly; or put sweet and hot peppers in separate plastic bags and close bags. Let stand for 10 minutes. Peel sweet and hot peppers using paring knife and remove seeds. Dice sweet peppers. Mince jalapeno peppers.
Leave eggplants until cool enough to handle. Remove eggplant skin and cut off caps. Halve eggplants and drain off any liquid inside. Chop eggplant flesh to a chunky puree.
Transfer eggplant to a bowl. Add garlic, parsley, olive oil, vinegar, salt and pepper. Stir in peppers, chilies and diced tomatoes. Taste and adjust seasoning. Serve cold or at room temperature, garnished, if you like, with capers.
PENNE WITH PEPPERS AND EGGPLANT-TOMATO SAUCE
The sauce for this Italian dish contains grilled eggplant, which blends into the tomato sauce and lends an intriguing flavor. If the eggplant skin is charred only in a few bits, you can leave most of its peel on for more of a grilled taste.
MAKES: 4 servings.
- 1-pound eggplant, slim enough to fit in broiler
- 2 pounds ripe tomatoes or two 28-ounce cans
- 4 to 5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 2 sweet green or yellow peppers, cut in large dice
- 1 zucchini, diced
- 1 onion, finely chopped
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- Salt and freshly ground pepper
- 1/4 teaspoon dried hot pepper flakes or cayenne pepper to taste
- 2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil
- 12 ounces penne or mostaccioli
- Fresh basil sprigs (for garnish)
Prick eggplant a few times with fork. Grill eggplant above medium-hot coals for about 40 minutes or broil it for about 25 to 30 minutes, turning often, or until its flesh is tender. Leave eggplant until cool enough to handle. Remove eggplant skin if it is blackened and cut off cap. Halve eggplant and drain off any liquid inside. Cut about a quarter of the eggplant in dice; reserve. Puree remaining eggplant in a food processor.
If using fresh tomatoes, peel, seed and chop them, reserving juice. If using canned tomatoes, drain them, reserving juice, and chop them.
Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a large, shallow saucepan. Add peppers and saute over medium heat, stirring often, for 7 minutes. Add zucchini and saute for 3 minutes or until zucchini and peppers are tender. Remove from pan.
Add 1 tablespoon oil to pan and heat it. Add onion and saute over medium heat for 5 minutes or until lightly browned. Add garlic, tomatoes, bay leaf, oregano, salt, pepper and pepper flakes. Cook uncovered for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Discard bay leaf.
Add chopped grilled eggplant to sauce. If sauce is too thick, stir in reserved tomato juice. Cook, stirring often, for 10 minutes or until sauce is thick and well flavored. Stir in basil.
Cook penne uncovered in a large saucepan of boiling salted water over high heat, stirring occasionally, for 9 or 10 minutes or until just tender, al dente. Drain well.
Transfer penne to a large shallow bowl and toss with 1 or 2 tablespoons olive oil. Reserve about 1/2 cup sauce, and toss remaining sauce with penne. Add reserved diced eggplant, peppers and zucchini. Serve garnished with basil sprigs. Serve remaining sauce separately.