Monday, August 30, 2010

Gratin of Eggplant & Tomatoes and Some Thoughts on Fresh Bread Crumbs

When I wrote my post for summer tomato sauce, I was working on an upcoming class on late summer foods from the South of France. One of the recipes that I will be teaching in that class is for a Gratin of Eggplant and Tomatoes.

Because there are so few ingredients, the success of this dish is almost wholly dependent on the quality of the ingredients.  Of particular importance is the tomato sauce, which is why I wanted to write the post on summer tomato sauce before I posted this recipe.  You could of course make the gratin with a good quality jarred sauce—and it would be fine—just rather ordinary. The concentrated tomato flavor and garlicky kick of the homemade sauce elevates this simple dish to the level of extraordinary. In addition to the homemade sauce, choose the best eggplant available to you and make sure that all of the other ingredients are of the best and freshest quality.

I think it's worth mentioning that this attention to quality should extend to even the breadcrumbs.  It is so easy to make them and the ones that come in cans, bags and boxes are so very inferior. Please make your own. It would be silly to go to all the trouble to make a wonderful tomato sauce and combine it with farm fresh eggplant, summer basil and good Parmesan only to top it with something that is the equivalent of sawdust.

To make fresh bread crumbs you need slightly stale bread. The best bread crumbs are made from good baguettes and artisanal country French or Italian-style loaves. Since these types of loaves don't have any preservatives, they are generally stale enough to be made into breadcrumbs a couple of days after they have been baked. If you never have odds and ends of bread left over, purchase a loaf, let it get stale and then make crumbs. A whole loaf will make a lot of bread crumbs, but that's not really a problem because they freeze very well. To make the crumbs, cut off the hard crusts and then cut the interior of the bread into chunks. Process the chunks in the food processor until they are as coarse or as fine as you want. For "fine, dry breadcrumbs", I dry the chunks of bread (or coarsely ground crumbs) in a low oven. When they are cool, I grind them until they are fine. These can be frozen, too.

When you look at this recipe you will probably notice that it is a very simple version of Eggplant Parmesan. Many of the traditional dishes of Provence have Italian counterparts. A couple of weeks ago I wrote about French Soupe au Pistou—a soup much like Italian Minestrone. With the Italian version of this gratin in mind, you might think of adding some sliced Mozzarella or Fontina to the first two layers of eggplant and tomato sauce. A little ricotta or some thinly sliced prosciutto would also be nice. Like any gratin, there are lots of possibilities for layers and lots of flavor combinations to play with.

For my part, I love this dish on the simple side. Occasionally I will follow Lulu Peyraud's example and make it with just the tomato sauce, eggplant (she fries hers—but this is a bit too much oil for me) and breadcrumbs. It is quite good even without the Parmesan and the basil.  However you choose to make it, I like it best served as an entrée—with a nice green salad and some good crusty bread.

Gratin of Eggplant & Tomatoes
(Gratin d'Aubergines aux Tomates)

2 eggplant (1 1/2 to 2 lbs.)
3 to 4 T. olive oil
Salt & Pepper
2 to 2 1/2 cups tomato sauce
Several leaves of fresh basil, torn or cut in a wide chiffonade
1/3 to 1/2 c. finely grated Parmesan (1 to 1 1/2 oz.)
3/4 c. fresh coarse bread crumbs
1 to 2 T. olive oil for drizzling

Top and tail the eggplants. Slice each eggplant lengthwise into 1/3-to 1/2-inch thick slices. Spread the eggplant on a baking sheet and brush both sides with olive oil. Season with salt and pepper.

Broil the eggplant until golden brown; turn and broil the other side in a similar manner.

As the eggplant brown, remove from the sheet and stack them on top of one another while they are still hot so that they will continue to steam one another and cook through. Set aside.

While the eggplant cooks, warm the tomato sauce over low heat.

To build the gratin, lightly oil a shallow 1 1/2- to 2-quart gratin or casserole. Arrange 1/3 of the eggplant in a snug layer in the bottom of the gratin. It is fine if the slices overlap slightly. Spread a third of the tomato sauce over the layer of eggplant.

Scatter half of the cheese and half of the basil over the sauce.

Repeat with the eggplant, sauce, cheese and basil. For the final layers, arrange the last third of the eggplant slices as before and cover with the remaining tomato sauce. Scatter the breadcrumbs over all. Drizzle the breadcrumbs with olive oil.

Transfer to a 350° to 375° oven and bake until the breadcrumbs are golden brown and the gratin is bubbling around the edges—about 30 minutes. Serve hot or tepid. Serves 4.


Jennifer said...

This is SUCH a wonderfuI, useful blog! I love that you teach me how to make food that is delicious yet practical and seasonal. I don't have to panic about finding silly little ingredients--it's what is in my fridge and on my counter. So I can actually USE your blog to cook for my family, rather than LOOK at your blog and think, "Nice, but I don't have time for that."

Katrina said...

I would love this. (Kevin, not so much.) pbbbttt to him.
Someone gave me a white eggplant. Have you cooked with those? Are they pretty much the same (taste, etc.)?

That's a great comment from Jennifer and so true!

Paige said...

Hi Katrina, I use all of the globe-type eggplants--whether white, lavender, striped, or dark purple--interchangeably. I just checked in Deborah Madison's "Veg Cooking for Everyone" and she says that the lighter the skin, the milder the flavor. I have also heard some people say that the lighter varieties have creamier flesh...but I haven't noticed that. If it is fresh and properly cooked, eggplant always seems pretty velvety to me. I usually go with the dark purple, because I don't peel eggplant (unless the skin seems tough) because I like the flecks of dark color. I'll be interested to hear if you notice a difference when you cook your white one.

Katrina said...

Thanks, Paige. I'm going to make this for lunch tomorrow (Kevin won't be home anyway.) I'll let you know how it is.

Katrina said...

I sent you an email, but just so anyone else who reads this knows, I made this today, one serving with one eggplant in a 6 ounce ramekin. It was SO good! Loved it.
(So glad one of the first things I did when we moved here was buy a few basil plants!)