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When a zucchini is a thing of beauty

Special to The Times

END-OF-SUMMER vegetables, multicolored and burnished by the slowing heat of an accomplished season, have transformed the market stalls and produce aisles into Renaissance still life paintings. But eventually, glorious heirloom tomatoes and lavender Chinese eggplants need to make the transition from objets d’art to food. Even Caravaggio got hungry.

What used to happen to many a sedate summertime vegetable would be its slow, heavy transformation into a stuffed dish: Zucchinis would suffer bacon and breadcrumbs, tomatoes would grow squat with cheese gratinee. How many sodden green peppers were filled with ground beef and rice and strewn haplessly across the dinner tables of our collective childhoods? But a stuffed vegetable can be something else entirely -- stunningly fresh, appealing and light. It can be a deeply flavorful experience for the diner and a highly creative one for the cook. The artistic impulse shouldn’t end at the market stalls -- it should begin there.

The experience can also be surprising. Hide a salad inside a gorgeously variegated bell pepper or fill a squash blossom with goat cheese. Hollow out an heirloom tomato, a curvaceous aubergine or the canoe of a long zucchini, and fill them with sauteed vegetables, a minty tabbouleh, a chiffonade of market greens.

What’s important is a careful consideration of both texture and structure. Think architecturally, of shapes and how they can be changed by cooking. A tomato, for example, is a profoundly delicate thing -- once vine-ripened and perfectly formed -- and the last thing you want to do is bake it into mushy oblivion. Instead, a few scant minutes under a broiler enlivens the flavors and allows the burnished globe to remain intact. A pepper, however, often requires a little cooking to mellow out the sharp flavors or coax delicate nuances out of its raw bite. And an eggplant needs time, whether it’s roasted, sauteed or braised, to come into its own.

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Like the vegetable-happy still-life painter, consider the form and properties of what you’re cooking -- from each angle and in each light. It’s a question of negative space. You can fill in the margins of a concave vegetable -- such as a pepper, which almost demands stuffing. Or you can create space from a convex form -- as with tomatoes or cucumbers, the seedy interiors of which are easily removed and replaced.

The addition of stuffing creates layers -- of flavors and textures, of color and form -- that add new dimension to vegetables. And you can also reassemble them for more architectural fun. Put the lid of the pepper back on the top (the resulting dish looks like a family of jaunty red-coated garden trolls) or tie the stuffed peppers up with string like a row of birthday presents. A little wrapping and bow tying also keep vegetables, once stuffed, from divulging their secrets.

The idea is to marry flavors and textures in ways that complement each other. Heirloom tomatoes, for example, demand a filling that highlights their fleeting seasonal qualities instead of overwhelming them. A velvety salt-cod puree requires a vehicle with cool acidity and enough bright texture to create contrast: The union works because it’s a marriage of opposites that attract. It’s not a classic brandade, but a smooth puree of salt cod and potatoes enriched with a little raw egg and the silken glory of walnut oil. Adding a touch of arugula beneath the cod puree gives a green piquant bite as well as a hint of color -- and the element of surprise.

Similarly, stuffing peppers with a salad of parsleyed bulgur, French feta and mint provides contrast and agreement. The deep grains and pungent herbs pair with the smooth twang of the cheese and work from the inside out to give flavor and texture to the peppers. For added dimension, ratchet up the heat of the pepper. Depending on your own personal Scoville index, you can stuff anything from soothing red bell peppers to increasingly incendiary Anaheim, Pasilla or poblano chiles. Blanching them first allows the flavor to mellow along with the structure of the vegetable, and the skins can be left on when you’re done. This provides a nice alternative to roasting and peeling -- or just outright baking, which gives good flavor but leaves prohibitively tough skins.

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The gorgeous longboats of purple Chinese eggplants get a faintly Middle Eastern treatment: here, a stuffing of walnuts and black kale flavored with cumin and pomegranate molasses. The walnuts give both structure and a nutty depth, and the spice notes provide intricacy; together, they allow the dish to play off the classic Mediterranean mezze muhammara, a creamy walnut and eggplant dip.

The technique for the eggplant is a playful one too. By quartering the long, delicate eggplant lengthwise and hollowing it out a little, you can stuff it without overwhelming it. A quick wrap with kitchen twine keeps the filling firmly inside and allows for a quick saute. Then douse the pan with some water, cover and remove from the heat. An hour later, the eggplants are tender, perfectly done and cool enough to slice or simply unwrap and eat.

Stuffing is both adaptive and variable. In other words, stuff what you have with what you have, particularly this time of year when the vegetables vary with wildly fluctuating temperatures and the vicissitudes of the fields. If the tomatoes are dull and ordinary, fill them to overflowing. If, however, they’re as luminescent as they are right now at the farmers markets, resist the urge to seed them and carve out only the tops.

Whether you’re playing Cezanne with your tomatoes -- or wrapping your produce up like Cristo -- all you need is a little late summer imagination. Call it “Still Life With Eggplants.”

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Heirloom tomatoes stuffed with salt cod and potato puree

Total time: 45 minutes, plus overnight soaking

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Servings: 4

Note: The salt cod and potato puree is adapted from a recipe by Paula Wolfert in “The Cooking of Southwest France.” Depending on the quality of tomatoes, they may be hollowed out and seeded, or if they are really flavorful, beautiful tomatoes, you may want to only partially scoop them out.

Salt cod and potato puree

1/2 pound salt cod

3 sprigs parsley

1 sprig thyme

1 bay leaf

1 onion, quartered

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1 clove garlic, halved

3 black peppercorns

1 small russet potato (about 6 ounces), peeled and cut into 8 pieces

6 tablespoons roasted walnut oil, divided

1/2 lightly beaten egg

1/2 teaspoon chopped garlic

6 tablespoons milk

Freshly ground pepper to taste

1. Soak the cod overnight in cold water to cover, changing the water a few times.

2. Rinse the cod and cut it into three or four pieces. Place the cod in a large saucepan and cover it with fresh cold water. Add the parsley, thyme, bay leaf, onion, garlic and peppercorns. Heat it slowly until the first white foam appears at just under a simmer. Remove from the heat, cover and let stand for 10 minutes.

3. Using a slotted spoon, remove the pieces of cod to a plate and reserve the cooking liquid for the potatoes. Let the cod stand until cool enough to handle, then remove the bones and skin from the fish; flake the flesh and keep warm.

4. Meanwhile, cook the potatoes in the poaching liquid just until tender, 10 to 15 minutes. Drain the potatoes and dry them in the saucepan over low heat. Immediately mash them until smooth, using a ricer or a masher. Beat in one tablespoon of the walnut oil, the beaten egg and the chopped garlic. Beat until smooth and keep warm.

5. Meanwhile, scald the milk in a small saucepan and heat the remaining walnut oil in a second saucepan.

6. Place the flaked cod and a little of the warm milk in a food processor. Pulse on and off once. Gradually add the warmed oil and milk alternately, pulsing without overworking the cod.

7. Scrape the fish into the potatoes. Season with pepper to taste and reserve.

Tomatoes and assembly

6 heirloom tomatoes

3/4 cup arugula, finely chopped

1 recipe salt cod

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 teaspoons chopped parsley

1. Heat a broiler. With a paring knife, hollow out the top half of the tomatoes. Tie a length of kitchen twine tightly around the tomatoes, finishing with a bow or knot.

2. Season the tomatoes with a little salt and pepper and let them drain upside down on a paper towel.

3. When ready to serve, spoon 2 tablespoons of the chopped arugula into the hollowed tomatoes. Spoon the salt cod mixture on top of the arugula, creating a nice mound over the top of the tomatoes.

4. Grind a little black pepper over the top and place the stuffed tomatoes on a baking sheet under the broiler until the cod puree is golden and the tomatoes are heated through, about 3 minutes. Remove the string from the tomatoes. Put the stuffed tomatoes on a plate and sprinkle over chopped parsley.

Each serving: 441 calories; 40 grams protein; 17 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams fiber; 24 grams fat; 3 grams saturated fat; 115 mg. cholesterol; 344 mg. sodium.

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Peppers stuffed with bulgur and feta salad

Total time: 1 hour

Servings: 4

1/2 cup bulgur wheat

1/2 teaspoon salt

Juice of 1 lemon

1 tablespoon olive oil

1/4 cup chopped flat leaf parsley

1/4 cup thinly sliced scallions

1/4 cup chopped mint

3 1/2 ounces French feta, plus 1 ounce for broiling

1/4 teaspoon Aleppo chile

1/4 teaspoon sumac

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

4 medium-sized peppers, either red or yellow bell peppers, Anaheim peppers, poblano, or any from your farmers market

Kitchen twine

1. Bring 1 cup water to a boil. Add the bulgur and one-half teaspoon salt; bring back to a boil. Lower the heat, cover and simmer until the water is absorbed, about 15 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool, then refrigerate.

2. In a large bowl, combine lemon juice, olive oil, parsley, scallions, mint, feta (reserving the extra ounce), Aleppo chile, sumac, kosher salt and bulgur. Cover and set aside.

3. Bring a large pot of salted water to a full boil. Cut the tops off the peppers, removing the veins and seeds. Blanch the peppers for 3 to 5 minutes (until they are pliable to the touch, but they shouldn’t lose their color), depending on which peppers you are using and how large they are. Drain and reserve.

4. Heat the broiler. Stuff the peppers with the bulgur mixture and place on a baking sheet, reserving the tops for serving. If you’re using long peppers, slit the sides to stuff them, then tie them up with kitchen twine. Crumble additional feta on top of the bell peppers or along the slits of the other peppers. Broil until the feta melts and the peppers get some color, 3 to 5 minutes.

4. Plate the peppers with their tops and serve.

Each serving: 212 calories; 8 grams protein; 24 grams carbohydrates; 6 grams fiber; 11 grams fat; 5 grams saturated fat; 28 mg. cholesterol; 795 mg. sodium.

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Eggplant stuffed with kale and walnuts

Total time: 50 minutes, plus 1 hour resting time

Servings: 4

4 Chinese eggplants

1 tablespoon kosher salt

4 tablespoons olive oil, divided

4 cloves garlic, minced

2 shallots, minced

4 cups chopped black kale (lacinto) shallots, minced

2 tablespoons pomegranate molasses

2 teaspoons ground cumin

1 cup toasted walnuts, chopped

1. Quarter the eggplants lengthwise, keeping the stem end intact. Carve out about one-half inch lengthwise along the inside of each quarter, leaving one-quarter inch of flesh intact. Chop the eggplant pieces that you’ve removed and sprinkle them and the interiors of the whole eggplants with the salt. Let sit 15 to 20 minutes.

2. In a large saute pan, heat two tablespoons olive oil over low heat. Add the garlic, shallots and kale and saute until fragrant and wilted, about 5 minutes. Squeeze out the water from the chopped eggplant and add it to the saute pan along with the pomegranate molasses and cumin; continue to cook for another 5 minutes. Add the walnuts; remove from the heat.

3. Pat the eggplants dry and fill the cavities with the stuffing; reassemble the quarters and tie with kitchen twine. In a large saute pan, heat the remaining olive oil, add the tied eggplants and saute on all sides until golden.

4. Add one-half cup water, cover the pan tightly and remove from the heat. Let sit, covered, for an hour.

5. After an hour, remove the eggplants from the pan, untie and serve, either sliced or whole.

Each serving: 371 calories; 8 grams protein; 22 grams carbohydrates; 7 grams fiber; 31 grams fat; 3 grams saturated fat; 0 cholesterol; 455 mg. sodium.


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