- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 31, 2006

We all need a few good culinary war horses that we can assemble early on a chilly autumn Sunday and let linger in the oven during the afternoon warming not only our anticipation, but our kitchen as well.

This elegant iteration of eggplant Parmigiano makes enough for a crowd (and is also for great leftovers later in the week). Serve this eggplant strata with fresh, crusty bread to mop up the juices and a small green salad on the side, and everyone will be happy.

Ideally, this dish is prepared with my current favorite homemade tomato-garlic sauce, which is long-roasted instead of long-simmered. The flavors get deeper with this cooking method, and there is very little fussing.

Basically, you just put the tomatoes and garlic in the oven, and go about your business while they slowly roast on their own. After they cool, peel and puree them, season to taste, and you’re done. If you don’t have time or inclination to make this sauce, go ahead and use a good brand of commercial tomato sauce.

Make the roasted tomato-garlic sauce and roast and peel the bell peppers a day or two ahead of time, and the final preparations will be quite easy. The eggplant and zucchini don’t need precooking, so just slice them, layer everything, and bake.

You can freeze individual portions. Just be sure to wrap them tightly, and label them clearly, so you won’t forget what they are. You can easily cut the recipe in half and bake it in a smaller pan.

Eggplant strata with zucchini and roasted red peppers

Olive oil for the pan

1 pound ricotta cheese

1 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or pecorino cheese

1 teaspoon salt

teaspoon black pepper

A pinch of cayenne

1 cups minced scallions (about 2 bunches )

2 tablespoons minced fresh rosemary (or 2 teaspoons crumbled dried rosemary)

1 recipe roasted tomato-garlic sauce (recipe follows) or 3 cups of a favorite commercial brand

2 eggplants (1 pound each), in 1/4-inch (or even thinner) slices, round or lengthwise

4 small zucchini (about 1 pound), cut into thin circles

3 medium-sized red bell peppers, roasted, peeled and cut into wide strips (OK if they come from a jar)

1 pound smoked mozzarella, thinly sliced

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Lightly oil a 9-by-13-inch pan. In a medium-sized bowl, combine the ricotta, Parmigiano or pecorino, salt, pepper, cayenne, scallions and rosemary, and mix well.

Spread a double layer of eggplant slices in the bottom of the prepared pan, followed by a single layer of zucchini. Spoon on half the ricotta mixture, then lay half the roasted pepper strips on top. Cover the peppers with half of the smoked mozzarella slices, and ladle on half the sauce.

Spread a single layer of eggplant on top of the sauce, then repeat all the layers, ending with the remaining sauce on top of the mozzarella. Bake uncovered for 1 hours. (Cover lightly with foil if the top becomes too brown.) Remove the pan from the oven, and let it sit for at least 15 minutes before serving. Serve hot, warm, or at room temperature. Makes 10 to 12 servings

ROASTED TOMATO-GARLIC SAUCE

Use this tomato sauce on freshly cooked pasta, in lasagnas or other casseroles, on pizza or wherever else it seems appropriate.

Put in the full two heads of garlic if you plan to serve this within a day of making it. Otherwise, use only one head, as the garlic flavor intensifies over time. This keeps for up to two weeks if tightly covered and refrigerated.

2 tablespoons olive oil

3 pounds tomatoes (roma or plum tomatoes work best)

1 or 2 garlic bulbs

1 teaspoon salt (or to taste)

2 teaspoons red wine vinegar

Black pepper to taste

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Line a baking tray with foil, and brush it with 1 tablespoon olive oil.

Cut the tomatoes in half; squeeze out and discard the seeds. Place the tomatoes cut side up on the baking sheet. Slice and discard the tips from the garlic bulbs, and stand the bulbs on their bases on the tray. Drizzle the open tomatoes with the remaining tablespoon of olive oil, and place the tray in the oven.

After 30 minutes, turn the tomatoes over. Remove the tray from the oven, and carefully pour off and save their juices. This will prevent them from stewing in their own liquid, and confer a deeper roasted flavor.

Return the tray to the oven, and bake for 30 minutes longer.

Cool to room temperature, then pull off and discard the tomato skins, if desired. Place the tomatoes in the food processor, and use your fingers to squeeze in the roasted garlic from its skins.

Add the reserved tomato juices, and puree everything together until smooth (or, if you prefer, you can leave the sauce a little textured).

Transfer the sauce to a bowl, and season to taste with salt, vinegar and pepper.

Cover and refrigerate until use. Makes about 3 cups sauce.

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