Roasted Eggplant Soup with Mozzarella Croutons

1-1/2 pound Japanese eggplant, halved lengthwise
1 red bell pepper, halved lengthwise
and seeded
4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 onions, unpeeled and halved lengthwise
3 plum tomatoes, halved lengthwise
8 garlic cloves
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
3 fresh thyme sprigs, chopped fine
3 fresh oregano sprigs, chopped fine
3 fresh basil sprigs, chopped fine
8 cups broth
1 bay leaf, crumbled
12 1/4 inch thick slices French bread, toasted
3/4 pound goat s milk mozzarella, grated coarsely

In a bowl coat the eggplant and the bell pepper lightly with 1 tablespoon of the oil and season the vegetables with salt and pepper. In a foil-lined roasting pan arrange the eggplant, skin sides down, the bell pepper, skin sides up, the onions, cut sides down, and the tomatoes, cut sides down, and roast the vegetables in the upper third of a preheated 400F. oven for 10 minutes.

Put the garlic in the pan near the tomatoes, roast the vegetables for 30 to 40 minutes more, or until the bell pepper is charred, and let them cool.

Remove the skin from the bell pepper and the onions and coarsely chop the eggplant, the bell pepper, the onions, and the garlic.

In a large kettle melt the butter with the remaining 3 tablespoons oil over moderately high heat, add the chopped vegetables including the garlic, the tomatoes, the thyme, the oregano, the basil, and enough of the broth to just cover the mixture, and bring the mixture to a boil. Add the bay leaf and simmer the soup for 30 minutes, or until it is thickened slightly. In a blender or food processor puree the soup in batches, transferring it as it is pureed to the cleaned kettle (the soup will be thick and textured, flecked with black bits of the eggplant), and heat it with the remaining broth over moderately low heat until it is heated through.

Arrange the bread slices on a baking sheet, sprinkle them with mozzarella, and broil the croutons under a preheated broiler about 4 inches from the heat for 3 to 4 minutes, or until the cheese is golden. Ladle the soup into 6 bowls and top each serving with 2 croutons.

 Serves 6.

(Also, instead of full slices as croutons, after broiling, with a sharp knife the toasted bread can be cut into smaller croutons and sprinkled onto the soup)



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