In my last post I talked about summer’s generous bounty—how do you take full advantage of it?? It’s a bit tough, I have to admit—not only is there so much variety in produce available, but there’s also the sheer abundance of it too. At work, as a baker, I can’t seem to make enough pies, buckles, coffee cakes to keep up with all the peaches and nectarines that need to be made use of. Outside of work, I can’t seem to keep up with my impulse buying of heirloom eggplants, tomatoes and peppers at the farmer’s market. How can I resist when they’re all seeming to say, “Buy me before the season is over!!”
The most appealing recipes these days are those that allow me to use up a lot of my produce in one go. Basil about to go bad? Make pesto, or blanch it on its own or with other herbs to make an infused oil brightened by lemon juice and zest. Too many peaches, nectarines or other stone fruit? Toss them with a bit of sugar, honey, again lemon juice and zest and slowly roast them, allowing the fruit at once to caramelize and to release its juices. Serve still warm with your favorite ice cream or freshly whipped cream and a sprinkle of flaky sea salt.
But what about all those aforementioned eggplant, tomatoes, and peppers? That’s when I turn to classic, always satisfying ratatouille. But! Not just any ratatouille. What I’m speaking of is the spicy, herb-loving, garlic-heavy (shocker) Georgian vegetable stew called ajapsandali. The trio of vegetables are slow-simmered along with carrots and onions and then are loaded up with aromatic herbs and garlic. It can be eaten right away of course, still warm, but I think it’s at its best cooled, as a confit or caviar of sorts.
During my summer vacations, after my mother would get off of work, she and I would meet up with my aunts and cousins and we would all carpool over to our favorite beach. There, at once refreshed and made ravenous by long swim in the warmed ocean, we would eventually sit down to eat. Hearty slices of bread would be passed around, along with wedges of tomatoes, cucumbers, feta and leftovers from whatever dinner was prepared the night before. Oftentimes one of the sisters would bring ajapsandali and treat the rest of us to some—soft and jammy from its long simmer, the thick vegetable medley was always the perfect fillip to our simple picnic meals by the sea. These days, I make ajapsandali not only to savor it’s melt in your mouth, almost sinful qualities, but also to transport back to those summer afternoons, spent soaking in the salty air, the lull of lapping waves, and the warmth of the sun’s last rays.
Georgian Ratatouille— Ajapsandali
This thick and silky summer vegetable stew is similar to the classic French ratatouille, but with a bite thanks to the addition of copious amounts of cilantro, garlic and pepper. There are many variations to this dish, for instance in Azerbaijan they add lamb and potatoes, but it always contains eggplants, tomatoes and bell peppers. It’s a great way to use up all those sun-ripened vegetables from the farmer’s market or garden in one fell swoop. Although it is easy, it is fairly time-consuming, so save it for a weekend afternoon. The trick to getting ultra jammy ajapsandali is to salt the eggplants ahead of time to extract excess water as well as deseeding and draining the tomatoes of any extra juices. Also, to achieve a prettier end result, use bell peppers of various colors.
3 large eggplants, stemmed, quartered lengthwise, and cut into ½-inch slices
2 large onions, medium chop
3 large carrots, cut into half moons
3 bell peppers (preferably of various colors), medium chop
1 jalapeño, finely chopped (depending on your spice preference, leave as much or little seeds)
3 large tomatoes, peeled, deseeded, squeezed of any extra juices, and roughly chopped
4 cloves garlic, one pressed, the other three thinly sliced
1 large bunch cilantro, finely chopped
1/2 bunch parsley, finely chopped
4-5 springs of basil (preferably purple if it’s available), sliced in chiffonade
sunflower or grapeseed oil
- Place eggplant in a colander and toss with kosher salt. Let sit for 30 minutes. Gently squeeze juice from the eggplants. In the meantime, prep the rest of the vegetables.
- Heat a few tablespoons of the oil in a large, heavy-bottomed pot over medium-high heat. Cooking the eggplant slices in batches, sauté both sides until they are golden brown, about 10 minutes. Add more oil as needed.
- Meanwhile, in a large skillet over medium-high heat, add a few tablespoons of oil and sauté onions and carrots until onions are translucent and slightly golden. Add peppers, cook for another 3-5 minutes, and then add tomatoes. Cook on medium heat for 8-10 minutes.
- When the last of the eggplant is finished cooking, return all the eggplant to the pot and carefully stir in the onion-tomato mixture. From this point, be very gentle when stirring the vegetables—over-mixing will result in mush. Let simmer over low heat for 5 minutes. Taste and season with salt. If you find the tomatoes to be too acidic, add a bit of sugar. Continue to cook, uncovered, over low heat for 1 hour, gently stirring maybe once or twice to make sure the vegetables aren’t burning at the bottom.
- Once the medley has cooked down significantly and is almost jam-like, stir in the pressed and sliced garlic and the rest of the herbs. Let cook for another 5 minutes and remove from heat. Season to taste. Serve slight warm, or better yet, cold. This dish can be made days in advance and only gets better with age.