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.
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.
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.”