With all due respect to avocado and hummus, vegetarian sandwiches can be awfully… flimsy. Just because someone is a short-term or lifelong meat ascetic doesn’t mean that they are therefore all sprouts and earnestness. I can assure you, my vegetarian friends are none of these things.
With this in mind, I attempted to create a sandwich as rib-sticking, belly-warming and mammoth as a meatball sub but, you know, minus the meatballs. Except instead of simply replacing them with the typical alternatives – gobs of cheese, perhaps some lentil patties – I instead turned to my favourite hearty vegetarian stew, ratatouille. I don’t make ratatouille in the traditional way (that would be with each vegetable cooked in its own pot in a multihour process, no doubt creating something so heroic, you wouldn’t dare squeeze it onto a bun) but in the manner of Pixar’s Ratatouille. Yes, like the movie. My version is as bare-bones as it gets: I take all of the dish’s traditional vegetables and cut them very thin on a mandolin, fan them out over a thin bed of tomato sauce with seasonings, and bake them until tender. Not only is the resulting dish gorgeous, it comes together quickly.
Nevertheless, the first time I slid layers of it onto a toasted bun, I had my doubts. Surely, it would need some ‘help’ to make it feel hearty – perhaps some goats’ cheese, maybe even (gasp) a thin layer of prosciutto? Layers of baked vegetables cannot alone have the magnitude of orbs of fried meat, smothered with cheese and onions, right? I’m delighted to report that I was absolutely, deliciously wrong.
Prepare vegetables: Preheat your oven to 180°C/fan 160°C/Gas 4, and prepare the vegetables: Trim the ends from the aubergine, courgette, and squash, and, with a mandolin, adjustable-blade slicer, or very sharp knife, slice them into pieces approximately 1mm thick. As carefully as you can, trim the ends off the red pepper and remove the core, leaving the flesh intact, like a tube. Thinly slice crosswise. Thinly slice the onion as well.
Yield: serves 6 to 8, enough to fill two 20cm lengths of sub, which can each be divided into hearty 5cm individual sandwiches
1 long, thin aubergine, such as a Japanese variety
1 long, thing courgette
1 long, thin tallow squash
1 to 2 red peppers, long and narrow if you can find them
½ small yellow onion
250g tomato purée or tinned tomato sauce
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
2 tablespoons olive oil
Chili flakes or piment d’Espelette
1 tablespoon chopped fresh herbs, such as thyme
Two 20cm sub rolls, or the equivalent length of baguette
How to: Spread the tomato purée into a large baking dish. Stir in the onion slices, minced garlic 1 tablespoon of the olive oil, a few pinches of salt, and a pinch of pepper flakes. Arrange the slices of aubergine, courgette, yellow summer squash, and red pepper so that they overlap, with just a smidgen of each flat surface visible. The pepper will give you the most trouble, because it’s probably bigger in diameter than the other vegetables, but whether it fans prettily or not, it will bake nicely. You might not need all of your vegetables. Drizzle remaining tablespoon of olive oil over the vegetables, and sprinkle with thyme. Cover dish with foil, and bake for 45 minutes, until vegetables are almost completely fork-tender.
Assemble subs: Meanwhile, split your sub rolls. Once the 45 minutes are up, increase oven setting to 220°C/fan 200°C/Gas 7, remove foil from the baking dish, and bake, uncovered, 15 minutes more. On the other rack, place your sub rolls on a tray to toast for 5 to 10 minutes.
A long, thin angled spatula, like a palette knife, is best for serving here. Carefully slide it under one section of the fanned vegetables, and slide it onto the bottom half of a toasted roll. Keep adding sections until you have covered the bread, and then repeat this so that you have a second layer of fanned vegetables. Scoop up any oniony sauce that was left beneath the vegetables, and lay it over the sub. Close each sub with the top half of the roll, cut into manageable lengths to eat, and serve.
Cooking notes: This goes great with soft goats’ cheese, which can be spread on either side of your toasted roll before adding the ratatouille. You could also forgo the baguette entirely, and serve this over polenta or couscous or another grain.
I’ve never noticed any lingering bitterness from the aubergine in this dish, but if you find yourself sensitive to aubergine’s nuances, you can pre-prep the aubergine by tossing the slices with 1 teaspoon table salt and setting them in a colander for 20 minutes to drain while you prepare the other vegetables. Since not all of the salt will run off, you might find you need less elsewhere in the dish.
Deb Perelman’s The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook, published by Square Peg is available on Amazon.