I’m usually going on about my tomato and (Hellman’s) mayo sandwiches this time of year but a recent social media post from chef Evan Mallett at Black Trumpet in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, got me on an eggplant tangent. Last year, Evan bought some rare heirloom seeds for Rosso di Rotonda ("red and round"), which originally came from a village in Basilicata in southern Italy and the purple and white striped Fairy Tale variety and both were grown by gardener Harvin Groft in the Heirloom Harvest Project garden, located at Tuckaway Farm in Lee. 

Each has its charms which I’ll get into but first, a bit about heirloom vegetables and fruit. A lot of the produce you’ll find in the produce section at the supermarket are hybrids, created to last a long time and to grow quickly which is great for commercial purposes but not so great for preserving the existence of rare, old-school varietals and really, not all that great for our enjoyment. Hybrids don’t have nearly the flavor or nutritional value an heirloom vegetable does and it’s important to preserve their history as well.  Heirloom plants are open-pollinated which allows you to save your seeds and use them year after year which means that the seeds have been in families or a specific region for generations, handed down through centuries. 

Those are just a few of the reasons chefs like Evan Mallett and some others in the region buy or  share heirloom seeds and launched The Heirloom Harvest Project. It’s mission is to promote regional heritage foods; agricultural diversity; and the connections among farmers, chefs, and consumers in our community." That covers locally raised heirloom produce, heritage meats and sustainable seafood (https://www.facebook.com/heirloomharvestproject/). Always look for heirloom tomatoes and eggplants in the Farmers Market wherever you are and look into getting your own seeds from a seed swap or local farmer to grow your own. 

Now, back to those Rosso di Rotonda and Fairy Tale eggplants. Legend has it that the Rosso di Rotonda came to southern Italy from Ethiopia, likely by soldiers coming back from the colonial wars and it’s been in the Basilicata region ever since.  They look much like a tomato and the  flavor is slightly bitter with a creamy texture. The Fairy Tale eggplant is sweet with no bitterness and very few seeds. If you see them in a market where you live, snap them up or go to Black Trumpet and enjoy them in a dish on their menu. Always ask them which dishes on the menu use heirloom vegetables. 

If you have some in your garden, find some in the market or get some heirloom eggplants in your weekly CSA delivery, you don’t even have to get all fancy with cooking the eggplant because it’s so flavorful. Marinate in olive oil, Balsamic vinegar and herbs like basil, mint and oregano and serve as a salad or just grill with a brush of herbed olive oil and sprinkle with some Parmesan and you’re done. 

Here are a few recipes to try to make the most of these summertime gems, in case you do want to try something more complicated.

Stuffed Rosso di Rotonda

Makes 4 servings

Because the rosso di rotonda are small and round, I like to stuff them with other summer produce and herbs and serve them as part of an outdoor smorgasbord. Using foraged or cultivated mushrooms, lightly sauteed,  is a nice touch, too.

Ingredients

1⁄2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

4 small eggplant 

Kosher salt

2 cups minced leek or shallots

1 cup diced green pepper

1⁄2 cup minced cauliflower

4 minced garlic cloves

2 cups chopped summer tomatoes

1⁄2 cup minced parsley

2 tbsp. minced fresh oregano

2 tbsp. Minced fresh basil

1 1⁄2 tbsp. red pepper flakes

1 cup crumbled feta or firm goat cheese

Preheat oven to 375°and line a baking pan with oiled parchment paper. Slice off the top part of each eggplant and set aside. Bruch the top and outside with olive oil and place on the tray. Roast until eggplant is just starting to get tender, about 20 minutes.

Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the leeks or shallots and sauté until soft but not yet browned, about 6 minutes. Add the bell pepper, cauliflower, and garlic, and cook for about 7 minutes more. Remove the vegetable mixture from the heat and stir in the tomatoes and herbs. Season to taste with red pepper flakes and salt.

Remove the eggplants from the baking pan and scoop out about 2/3 of the eggplant inside the sphere. Chop what you’ve scooped and mix with the rest of the vegetables, then fill each "bowl." 

Drizzle with the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil and return the pan to the oven for 10 minutes, or until the eggplant is sizzling. Transfer the eggplants to a serving platter and sprinkle with crumbled feta or goat cheese, then top each with the reserved eggplant stop and stem like a jaunty hat.

Fairy Tale Eggplant Ratatouille

Serves 8

This dish also uses what’s coming from the garden now, including basil, tomatoes and squash. It’s great for a summer pot luck. Serve with a crusty bread. 

Ingredients

1 cup extra-virgin olive oil, divided into two cups

2 pounds Fairy Tale or other small eggplants, cut into 1-inch cubes

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 pounds zucchini and yellow squash, cut into 1-inch pieces

6 anchovy fillets, finely minced

3 onions, finely chopped

6 garlic cloves, finely chopped

1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley

Leaves from one bunch fresh basil, coarsely chopped

Leaves from 8 fresh thyme sprigs

3 pints mixed summer cherry  tomatoes

1 dried chile pepper

Splash balsamic vinegar

Line a large platter with paper towels. Heat 1/2 cup olive oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add the eggplant, season with salt and pepper, and cook for about 10 minutes, until the eggplant is soft. Remove from the pan onto the paper towel-lined platter. 

Cook the zucchini and yellow squash using the same method, adding oil if necessary. Add the squash and zucchini to the eggplant on the platter. Add 1/2 cup olive oil to the pan, then the anchovies, onions, garlic and herbs and cook for  5 minutes, until the onions caramelize..

Add the tomatoes and cook  for about 10 minutes. Place the eggplant and zucchini and squash back into the pan, split the chile pepper and add that. Season with salt and pepper and cook the entire mixture for about 20 minutes on low heat until it’s soft and juicy. Stir in vinegar and serve.