The baby vegetables are already up. Tiny peas in their pods have made their appearance, and the herb garden is planted. Spring is here. In my home it is time for lighter fare. Grilled eggplant topped with rich whole milk ricotta and candy sweet roasted tomatoes makes a beautiful warm weather antipasto. For a second offering, try fresh fava beans and baby peas flavored with herbs, classic spring fare. Fresh mint and basil highlight the earthy, nutty taste of the fave and the sweetness of the young peas.
Use your favorite oil to prepare the eggplant and tomatoes, and to grill the bread for the second antipasto, but use a first rate extra virgin Tuscan olive oil elsewhere in both recipes. The fruity full flavor and low acidity of extra virgin Tuscan oil are particularly complementary to both of these antipasti. Paired with a crisp white wine, these dishes are sure to please your guests and whet their appetites for more.
Eggplant with Roasted Tomatoes and Baked Ricotta
serves about 8, 1 round per person
The pizzico, or burn one feels at the back on one’s throat with a fine Tuscan oil adds a remarkable sensory note to this antipasto.
1 large eggplant
24-30 multicolored teardrop or cherry tomatoes
1 cup whole milk ricotta cheese, drained
1 large egg
2 tablespoons grated Pecorino Toscano
olive oil for grilling eggplant and roasting tomatoes
kosher salt and pepper
Tuscan extra virgin olive oil to finish
herbs to garnish platter
For the eggplant
Slice the eggplant into ½ inch rounds and place on a sheet pan. Sprinkle both sides with kosher salt. Set aside for 25-30 minutes until moisture beads on the surface. Blot dry with paper towels. Oil and preheat a grill pan. Grill the eggplant over medium heat, 10 to 12 minutes per side.
For the tomatoes and baked ricotta
Place the oven rack in the center position. Preheat to 400 degrees F. Place the tomatoes on a sheet pan. Toss the tomatoes with 2 tablespoons of olive oil and ½ teaspoon each salt and pepper. Roast until they soften slightly and are heated through but retain their shape, about 20 minutes, tossing once or twice.
Coat a 10 ounce ramekin with oil. Combine ricotta, egg, Pecorino Toscano, ¼ teaspoon salt and ¼ teaspoon pepper in a small bowl. Transfer to ramekin, and place in the oven along with the tomatoes. Bake until puffed, about 25 minutes.
Place eggplant rounds on a platter. Distribute the ricotta over the eggplant. Top each round with a few tomatoes, scattering the remaining tomatoes on the platter. Drizzle Tuscan extra virgin olive oil over the rounds. Place herbs on platter and serve.
Fava and Spring Pea Crostini
makes about 14, depending on width of loaf
baguette or country bread, sliced on bias into ½-inch thick pieces
4 oz. shelled fava beans (about 8-9 oz. in their pods)
4 oz. young green peas, frozen or fresh
¾ cup whole milk ricotta cheese
1 tablespoon chopped mint
2 tablespoons chopped basil
1 teaspoon lemon juice
shaved Pecorino Toscano or Pecorino Romano cheese
2 peeled garlic cloves
olive oil to grill bread
Tuscan extra virgin olive oil
kosher salt and black pepper, to taste
Shell the fava beans. First bend the tip and unzip the pod to expose the interior. Remove the beans and discard the pod. Place the beans on a sheet pan in freezer for 10 minutes. Remove beans from the freezer. Pull off and discard outer skin. A second method for removing the tough outer skin is to boil and blanch (or shock) the beans. Drop the beans into boiling water for 30 seconds during which time the skin will begin to loosen. Remove them from the boiling water and plunge them into a bowl of ice water. The outer skin can now be easily removed, and the beans are ready to use.
Fill a 4-quart saucepan half full with water. Bring to a boil over high heat. Add beans, and boil until tender, 5-10 minutes. Cooking time will vary depending on the size of the beans. Just before fave are done, add peas to saucepan for 30 seconds. Drain and set on towels to dry. Reserve 2 tablespoons of peas to garnish. Coarsely chop or mash the fave and remaining peas, and place in a medium bowl. Add the ricotta, herbs, lemon juice, ¼ teaspoon each of kosher salt and black pepper, and 1 tablespoon of Tuscan olive oil. Gently combine. Check for seasoning, adding more salt or pepper if desired.
Preheat a grill pan for 5 minutes over medium heat. Drizzle oil over both sides of the bread. Grill until warm and lightly marked on both sides. Rub one side of warm bread with garlic clove.
Spread the ricotta mixture on the garlic rubbed surface of each piece of bread. Top with a few of the reserved peas, pressing gently. Arrange crostini on a serving platter. Drizzle lightly with Tuscan olive oil, and use a vegetable peeler to shave Pecorino over crostini. Serve.