Guided by the seasons and nurtured by the California sunshine, cook and gardener Valerie Rice has created a book that will put the joy back into cooking. Lush Life: Food & Drinks from the Garden (2021, Prospect Park Books) also includes garden planning and tips, and more.

Rice’s passion for gardening and cooking shines through into her recipes, like Deviled Eggs with Fried Capers and Smoked Paprika, Spring Pea Soup with Dill Labneh, Creamy Risotto with Peas, Leg of Lamb Stuffed with Feta and Oregano, Orange-Marinated Tri-Tip with Chimichurri and Padron Peppers, Rigatoni with Heirloom Tomato Sauce, Grilled Salmon in Fig Leaves with Nectarine Relish, Lemon Chiffon Cupcakes with Rose Petals and more.

Eggplant Gratin with Mozzarella, Heirloom Tomato Sauce and Basil

I grow a wide variety of heirloom eggplants; my favorites are purple Japanese, Listada de Gandia, Rosa Bianca, Edirne purple striped and Rosita. I usually plant a few of each, and the garden looks like a jewel box of white, purple and pink, with speckles and stripes — it’s fun to grow, harvest and eat something so gorgeous.

Eggplants need full sun and, like their nightshade cousin the tomato, have a long growing season that sets fruit deep into the fall. 

This recipe is a family favorite that’s simple to put together. The traditional American eggplant acts like a sponge when it meets oil, but the heirloom Japanese and Italian varieties I grow are less spongy, less bitter and have thinner skins — which means there’s no need to salt, bread, just slice and roast in a hot oven, layer with tomato sauce and cheese, and you’re on your way to a lighter meal. 

 

6 medium heirloom eggplants (unpeeled), sliced lengthwise into 1/3-inch-thick slices (about 1-1/2 pounds)

Extra-virgin olive oil (for brushing), plus 1 tablespoon 

Kosher salt and ground pepper

2-1/2 cups Heirloom Tomato Sauce (recipe in Lush Life) 

3 tablespoons chopped fresh basil

2 cups grated mozzarella cheese

3/4 cup freshly grated parmesan 

2 tablespoons panko breadcrumbs

Preheat oven to 450°F. Place eggplant in a single layer on one-two baking sheets. Brush both sides of eggplant generously with oil and season with salt and pepper. Bake until tender and golden brown, about 16 -18 minutes. Cool. (Eggplant can be made one day ahead. Cover and chill.)

Preheat oven to 400°F. Brush 12-by-8-inch oval gratin baking dish or medium casserole dish with oil. Spread 2 tablespoons sauce over the bottom, then top with 1/3 of the eggplant. Spoon 3/4 cup tomato sauce over eggplant. 

Sprinkle with half of basil, half of mozzarella and half of parmesan. Top with half of the remaining eggplant. Spoon 3/4 tomato sauce over the eggplant and sprinkle with remaining basil, mozzarella and parmesan.

Arrange remaining eggplant over the cheese and top with remaining sauce. 

Mix breadcrumbs and 1 tablespoon oil in a small bowl. Sprinkle breadcrumbs over

the sauce.

Bake until the casserole bubbles at the sides and is heated through, about 35 minutes. 

Makes six servings.

 

Heirloom Tomato Sauce

 

This summer sauce makes great use of those awkwardly shaped, semi-bruised heirloom tomatoes that are difficult to slice but oh so delicious. The anchovies add a savory, salty flavor that’s not fishy, I promise. Grating the tomatoes is a technique I learned almost ten years ago in a Moroccan cooking class taught by my friend Peggy Markel, who leads culinary tours of Morocco and Italy. It’s a magical technique that saves time — no peeling! As for the Calabrian chiles, they have wonderful flavor and heat that really make the sauce delectable; look for them in jars packed in oil at specialty Italian markets. 

 

2 ½ pounds cluster or heirloom tomatoes or a mix of garden tomatoes 

4 anchovies packed in oil, drained

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

4 large garlic cloves, grated

2 small oil-packed Calabrian chiles, stemmed, chopped or ½ teaspoon dried red chile flakes

2 teaspoons Diamond Crystal kosher salt

6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) chilled unsalted butter, cut into pieces 

 

Using the large-holed side of a box grater, hold the tomato by its stem end and grate until you are left only with the skins (give them to your chickens or use to flavor vegetable broth). 

In a large skillet on medium-high heat, fry the anchovies in olive oil, mashing the fillets with a wooden spoon until they resemble a paste, about 1 minute. Next add the garlic and chiles, and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute. Now add the tomatoes and salt, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the sauce reduces some of its wateriness, 15-20 minutes. Remove from heat, add the butter and stir until just melted. (Can be made 2 days ahead.) Cool, then cover and refrigerate.

Makes about 4 cups.

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