Everyone knows there is no such thing as perfection, but when it comes to a recipe, Guest Food Editor Eileen Hays Wallace has an eggplant casserole that comes close to it. It has only nine or 10 ingredients, including the salt and pepper, all readily available and relatively inexpensive. It takes only 20 minutes to get it into the oven and 45 minutes to get it out. It can be a main dish or a side dish, ovo-lacto (with the cheese) or vegan (without cheese and butter). It can be prepared ahead and held in the refrigerator. It is healthy. It is pretty on the plate. And it is delicious. What more could one ask?
Wallace has adapted her eggplant casserole recipe from one she got from Debbie Fegily, an Italian friend from her years in West Chester, Pa. They were cooking buddies in the ’70s and shared many adventures. They took a classic cooking class, for example, and learned to make their own stocks, which they then used in preparing a veal soubise. From that experience they learned that it only took their husbands 10 minutes to demolish something it took them two days to prepare.
“Never again,” says Wallace.
Baking a Bûche de Noël for Christmas, they were working between two different recipes. The cake kept coming out flat as a pancake and it took several tries, many hours and a few trips to the store for more ingredients before they realized that they had somehow missed adding the flour. It has happened to all of us. Having mastered it, Wallace still makes the Yule log at holiday time.
Along with the casserole and the Bûche, Wallace’s signature dishes include coq au vin and coeur à la crème, a white custard heart served with a sauce that includes fresh raspberries and red currant jelly. Her sources of inspiration include the now-defunct Gourmet magazine and a present-day subscription to Bon Appetit.
When it comes to cookbooks, Wallace enjoys a special advantage. She selects the ones she likes the best and sells them in her shop, Write On Sarasota, located in the Whole Foods Center downtown. Among her favorites is the “The Silver Spoon,” published by Phaidon Press Ltd. This volume has nothing to do with the New York ready-to-eat shop that was so popular in the ’80s. It is billed as “Italy’s best-selling cookbook for more than 50 years” and “the bible of authentic Italian cooking.” Wallace is a big fan of the Phaidon imprint: “Anytime I see it, I buy it,” she says. She also likes and sells the cookbooks by “Barefoot Contessa” Ina Garten. Another favorite is “The $50 Dinner Party,” which is immediately going on this writer’s want list.
Wallace and her husband, Steve, are wrapping up many happy years in their Siesta Key home, which was designed by Sarasota School of Architecture guru Tim Siebert, built in 1960 and successfully expanded and renovated by the couple. The kitchen is open, airy and bright. The home has recently been listed for sale, because Wallace wants to be able to walk to work. That will also mean she can walk to Whole Foods and the Sarasota Farmers Market and other provisioners close to her cook’s heart.
Eileen Hays Wallace’s Eggplant Casserole
Start to finish: 65 minutes
Servings: 4 to 5 entrée servings;
6 to 7 side dish servings
1 medium to large eggplant, peeled and
sliced, approximately 1/4-inch thick
1-2 zucchinis sliced on the diagonal, about 1/4-inch thick
1 red onion, peeled and sliced thin
1 large (or two medium) tomatoes, skin on, sliced medium
1 handful fresh basil pulled apart
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1 ball fresh mozzarella, sliced
1/2 cup Parmesan cheese, grated
1-2 tablespoons butter (optional)
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Layer the following in order listed in a 9-by-12-inch casserole dish: eggplant, zucchini, onion and tomatoes. Top with the basil leaves. Season to taste with sea salt and freshly ground pepper. Bake 40 to 45 minutes. Remove from oven and top with mozzarella slices and grated Parmesan. Dot with optional butter and return to oven for five to seven minutes until cheese is melted.
Casserole can be assembled in advance and baked before serving.
It can also be made without cheese and butter, in which case drizzle with olive oil before baking.