The Classic BLT meets Panzanella for this flavorful mash-up, which is not only palate-pleasing, but pretty enough to serve as your table's centerpiece. / Photo courtesy Sara Jeran

Sara Stirs: Late summer favorites reimagined, starring the BLT Panzanella and Crispy Italian Eggplant

BUCKHANNON – How can it possibly be August already?

I have noticed my early morning daylight is slowly decreasing. The plants and the air are changing. I sense carefree steamy summer days are coming to the season’s end. While I hate to see these days pass, August delivers a precious gift: garden produce in West Virginia is at its peak. I wait all year for ripe tomatoes, and sadly, they are only delicious for a brief time. Baskets are brimming with cucumbers, squash, peppers, and corn throughout town.

BLTs, fried squash, slow-cooked green beans, salads galore – whatever dishes you cherish, I hope you have been enjoying them. Summer, as with any season, can become repetitive in the kitchen. About the tenth evening of a tomato and cucumber salad, and a counter full of gorgeous produce I decided I needed a few twists on vintage recipes to showcase the bounty.

The first recipe is actually a mashup between an American classic and an Italian classic. There is no doubt the BLT is exclusively summer’s sandwich. A traditional summer Italian delight is Panzanella, a rustic tomato and bread salad. Day (or two) old bread is toasted, then tossed with tomatoes, basil and vinaigrette. Simple, but absolutely fantastic. Both rely on bread and tomatoes, so why not combine these two for over-the-top BLT panzanella?

Homemade croutons are seasoned with herbs and olive oil for the salad base. Of course, the regular bacon, lettuce, and tomato are present. To guild the lily, I candy the bacon with honey and cayenne. Summer additions include: red onion, fresh corn, cucumbers and plenty of greens. I chose a slightly creamy Italian dressing to compromise with each dish’s original flavor. BLTs’ usual condiment is mayonnaise, while Panzanella wears a vinaigrette.

This creamy Italian dressing falls perfectly in between. It does not have the weight of a ranch-style dressing but is also not as thin as a vinaigrette. For good measure, add a sprinkle of feta cheese and sunflower seeds. I believe any excellent entree salad contains cheese and seeds/nuts. This one hits all the marks. Each forkful is a flavor explosion. A bonus – it is pretty enough to serve as a centerpiece.

Eggplant is under-appreciated and rarely given enough love. I am sharing a recipe that might just change your mind. I feel the one eggplant dish everyone is familiar with is Eggplant Parmigiana. Breaded eggplant covered in melted mozzarella and marinara sauce. It’s delicious, but often leaves me wondering “where was the eggplant”? I stick to the conventional crispy breaded eggplant. The difference is, the eggplant shines as it remains crispy. Alternatively, I replace heavy marinara with a fresh tomato salad tossed with basil and balsamic vinegar. The mozzarella is ditched for Parmesan in the crust that becomes crispy and golden. Shaved ribbons are added to finish. For me, this one blows away the original. Lighter, brighter and a true showcase of the ingredients.

After the summer must-haves are out of your system, think beyond the time-honored. Give one of these reinvented meals a try – or get creative with what is available. You cannot mess this up; the stunning produce will do all the work. My only guideline is to keep meals simple this time of year since daylight and warm temperatures are precious. Save your laborious projects for the fall and winter months. Support local farmers as they have put in much hard work this growing season. Enjoy the sun and grilling days.

Happy cooking. Peace.

Creamy Italian Dressing

Ingredients:

  • 1/3 cup neutral oil, grape seed or avocado
  • 1/4 cup white balsamic or champagne vinegar
  • 3 tablespoons water
  • 1/2 cup mayonnaise
  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 2 teaspoons honey
  • 1/4 cup Parmesan cheese
  • 2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh basil
  • 1 garlic clove grated
  • 1/2 teaspoon onion powder
  • 1 teaspoon dried parsley

Directions: Combine all ingredients in a food processor or blender until smooth. Chill before serving.

Assembling the BLT Panzanella

For the croutons: Cube bread (that is on the verge of stale) toss with olive oil until coated. Season with dried Italian herbs and coarse sea salt. In a heavy skillet toast until crisp over medium heat.

For the bacon: Once crisped and out of the skillet sprinkle with cayenne and drizzle with honey.

For the veggies: Use tomatoes, cucumbers, corn, red onion, greens.

Extras: Feta cheese, sunflower seeds, salt and pepper

Voila — the finished product! / Photo courtesy Sara Jeran

Crispy Italian Eggplant

Ingredients:

  • 1 eggplant sliced into planks, 1/4 in thickness Salt Oil for the skillet Lemon juice and flaky salt for finishing
  • Optional: crushed red pepper
  • For the flour mixture:
  • 1/2 cup flour
  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne
  • salt and pepper just to season
  • For the egg wash:
  • 1 egg
  • Splash of water to loosen
  • Pinch of salt
  • For the breading:
  • 3/4 cup Panko breadcrumbs, unseasoned
  • 1/2 cup Parmesan cheese, grated
  • 1 tablespoon fresh oregano, finely chopped (or 1 teaspoon dried)
  • 1 tablespoon fresh parsley, finely chopped ( or 1 teaspoon dried).

Directions:

  1. Season each side of the eggplant with salt. Do the three step dredging. Starting with the flour mixture, coat the eggplant pieces thoroughly. Next dip in the egg to coat. Press each side into the breadcrumbs for a thick coating.
  2. Pan fry in very shallow oil in a heavy bottomed skillet over medium heat. Cook each side 4-5 minutes, or until golden brown and crisp.
  3. Remove from the skillet and place on a wire rack to cool (this will keep them crisp). Sprinkle with flaky salt and a squeeze of lemon juice (optional crushed red pepper).

For the tomato salad:

Ingredients:

  • 1 1/2 cups fresh tomatoes, chopped
  • 1/2 cup cucumber, chopped
  • 1 garlic clove grated
  • 2 tablespoons white balsamic vinegar, or lemon juice
  • 3 tablespoons fresh basil, finely chopped Coarse salt and black pepper to taste

Directions: Toss all ingredients to combine. Serve over crispy eggplant.

Finally, a dish that allows the eggplant to shine through, as heavy marinara is replaced with a fresh tomato salad tossed with basil and balsamic vinegar, and the mozzarella is ditched for Parmesan in the crust that becomes crispy and golden. / Photo courtesy Sara Jeran

Sara Jeran is a culinary enthusiast, gardener, beekeeper and Buckhannon native. Follow her on Instagram at @sarajstirs.

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