- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 13, 2003

Some vegetables — roasted eggplant, zucchini, winter squash, tomatoes, artichokes, red peppers and mushrooms — beg to be stuffed.

Stuffed vegetables are a delicious and convenient way to vary everyday meals. Besides being pretty, great-tasting and a terrific way to use up bits and pieces of leftovers, they have endless variations.

Take, for example, the recipe that follows for stuffed eggplant. Instead of sauteed chopped onion, you could use leeks or shallots and add chopped mushrooms, tomato or cooked chopped spinach. Jarred roasted red peppers could be substituted for fresh red bell pepper.

Dill, basil or thyme might be substituted for the parsley and oregano. Dried currants or raisins could be used instead of sun-dried tomatoes. Chopped almonds or walnuts could be substituted for pine nuts.

For the starch, there also are a number of possibilities. The recipe suggests white or brown rice, couscous or bulgur or a small pasta such as orzo. I prefer these grains to plain bread crumbs, but freshly made oven-toasted bread crumbs could be used as well.

Bits of meat, seafood or poultry could be added. To do this, saute pound ground lamb, pork, beef or turkey with the onion. (Drain off grease, if necessary.) Or stir cooked crumbled sausage, diced bacon, ham, small shrimp or flaked salmon into the stuffing mixture.

I like feta cheese with this stuffing mixture, but shredded provolone or mozzarella, grated Parmesan or crumbled goat cheese also could be used.

The possibilities, as you see, are endless. This dish is hearty enough to serve as a main course with broccoli and tomato salad on the side.

For dessert, serve store-bought coconut macaroons, my favorite.

Preparation: Pre-roast the eggplant while preparing the stuffing. Prepare the salad while stuffed eggplant roasts.

Stuffed roasted eggplant with feta cheese

2 medium (about 12 ounces each) Italian eggplants, halved lengthwise (do not trim)

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

cup chopped onion

cup diced red bell pepper

1 cup cooked long- or medium-grain white or brown rice, cooked couscous or bulgur or cooked orzo or other small pasta

4 ounces (about 1 cup) crumbled mild feta cheese

cup drained oil-cured sun-dried tomatoes in -inch dice

8 pitted Kalamata olives, chopped

2 tablespoons toasted pine nuts, optional

2 tablespoons chopped Italian parsley

1 teaspoon dried oregano

Kosher salt, freshly ground black pepper

Heat oven to 400 degrees. Brush cut side of eggplant with half of the olive oil. Place cut side down on baking sheet.

Roast eggplant until semitender and cut side is golden, about 20 minutes. Cool.

Heat remaining olive oil in a large skillet. Add onion and red bell pepper and cook, stirring, over medium-low heat until golden, about 5 minutes. Add rice, couscous, bulgur or pasta and stir until blended.

Use a tablespoon to scoop the tender flesh from eggplant, leaving about inch of eggplant attached to the skin.

Chop the flesh. To stuffing mixture, add chopped eggplant, feta cheese, tomatoes, olives, pine nuts, if using, parsley and oregano. Stir to blend. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Reduce oven temperature to 350 degrees. Arrange eggplant shells in baking dish. Carefully fill shells with the stuffing, pressing down lightly and then mounding the tops. If there is extra filling, spoon it around the eggplant.

Roast eggplant until heated through and tops are golden, about 25 minutes. Serve hot or at room temperature.

Makes 4 servings.

Broccoli and tomato salad

4 cups (about 1 pound) broccoli florets

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon red wine vinegar

teaspoon kosher salt

teaspoon minced garlic

Freshly ground black pepper

4 ripe plum tomatoes, trimmed, quartered and halved

2 tablespoons torn fresh basil leaves, optional

Steam the broccoli on a steaming rack set over 1 inch boiling water in a covered saucepan until fork-tender, about 5 minutes. Drain. Meanwhile whisk the olive oil, vinegar, salt, garlic and a grinding of black pepper in a large bowl. Add the broccoli, tomatoes and basil, if using, and toss to coat. Serve at room temperature.

Makes 4 servings.

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