Total time: 1 hour
Servings: 6 to 8 as an appetizer (makes about 2 1/2 to 3 dozen)
1 medium eggplant, about 1 pound
1 medium slender zucchini
1 small red bell pepper, finely diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
3/4 cup freshly grated pecorino Romano
1/3 cup pine nuts
2 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme
1 cup panko crumbs
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 large egg, lightly beaten
Flour for coating
Olive oil for frying
Hot sauce or lemon wedges
1. Trim the eggplant and zucchini and cut in half lengthwise. Arrange, cut side down, in steamer basket over simmering water in large pot. Steam the zucchini 3 minutes and transfer to paper towels to dry. Continue steaming the eggplant until it's very soft, about 20 minutes. Transfer to a colander and drain, cut side down, 20 minutes, until most of the liquid has seeped out.
2. Cut the zucchini into fine dice and place in a mixing bowl. Scoop out the eggplant pulp with a spoon and finely chop. Add to the zucchini.
3. Add the diced pepper, garlic, cheese, pine nuts, thyme and panko, and mix well. Season generously with salt and pepper. Stir in the egg and mix well.
4. Pour oil to a depth of one-fourth inch in a large skillet and heat until shimmering. Working in batches, shape the eggplant mixture into balls the size of small walnuts and roll in flour to coat lightly, shaking off the excess. (The balls will be soft but will take shape as they roll in the flour.) Lay the patties into the hot oil and cook until crisp and golden-brown, about 1 1/2 to 2 minutes on each side.
5. Drain well on paper towels and serve hot, warm or at room temperature, with hot sauce or freshly squeezed lemon juice if desired.