I can trace all of my food memories back to one moment. I was in first grade, still the new kid in Philadelphia, still trying to learn English and forget Hebrew. I opened the front door of my house one day, after school, and the scent of roasting eggplants and sweet peppers hit me. I immediately knew what that smell meant. It meant my grandparents were visiting from Israel, and my Safta, my grandmother, Matilda, was cooking. For the next month anyway, I would get the feeling of family and closeness that, at that moment in my life, I didn’t have.
Technical tip: To avoid overcooking, don’t be afraid to use medium-low heat. High heat can scorch the bottom of the pan.
Swap options: Can swap the chopped parsley and use any other herbs that you love, like cilantro or dill.
Set the peppers on their sides over high heat on a gas stovetop or grill so they’re exposed directly to the flame (use a small metal grate if you’ve got one since it gives you a little more control). Cook until that side is completely blackened, 3 to 4 minutes, then rotate; they’re done when they’re charred black all over. Remove from heat and set aside to cool.
Use a fork to prick the eggplant a few times all over. It gives off a fair amount of liquid as it cooks, so if you like, line your burner with foil for easy cleanup. Lay the eggplant on its side over the burner as you did with the peppers and cook over medium-high heat until the bottom is blistered and blackened with bits of papery white char. Rotate and keep cooking until the whole thing is uniformly charred — depending on your stove, this usually takes about 45 minutes. It’ll be ugly and you’ll think you overcooked it. You didn’t. This is what gives it a ton of flavor and a creamy texture. Remove from heat and set aside to cool.
When the peppers are cool enough to handle, use wet fingers to rub off all their papery, charred skin. Resist the urge to run them under the sink; although that lets you peel them faster, it also rinses away the smoky flavor you just built. Once the skins are removed, pull or cut out the stems, cut into the peppers lengthwise, and scrape out all the seeds and any pith. Chop the peppers and set them aside; you should have about 1½ cups worth.
Halve the eggplant lengthwise and cut off the top. The inside should be creamy all the way to the center, but if it’s not, you can finish the job by placing the halved eggplant in a 375 F oven for 5 to 10 minutes. Use a spoon to gently scoop out the flesh, taking care not to bring too much charred skin with it, and set it aside with the peppers; you should have about 3/4 cup worth.
Set a large sauté pan over medium heat and add 2 tablespoons of oil. Once it’s warm, add the tomato paste and use a wooden spoon or spatula to break it up as much as you can to build a toasty flavor.
Once the olive oil is orange and the tomato paste doesn’t smell so raw, add the garlic and cook just until it starts to soften and smell great. Add the roasted peppers, eggplant and salt and stir to incorporate. Roughly crush the canned tomatoes by hand or chop them, then add them to the pan with their juice.
Reduce the heat to low and cook, uncovered, for about 1 hour. You want the mixture to really dry out, thicken and kind of slump into itself. Stir it occasionally to scrape up the brown bits and prevent the bottom of the pan from burning. It’s done when it tastes sweet and deeply caramelized. Set it aside and cool to room temperature. To serve, scatter with parsley and drizzle the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil.