Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Eggplant-Tomato Gratin

According to Food Lover's Companion (Herbst, S.H. 2001, 3rd ed.), a Gratin is any dish that is topped with cheese or bread crumbs and browned until crispy under a broiler or in the oven. A Gratin can also refer to the actual cooking vessel of the ingredients, and is usually shallow and wide to allow for maximum surface area of crispy cheese and breadcrumbs. Either way, gratins (as a cooking vessel or as a prepared dish), are beautiful things!

In most instances, thinly sliced vegetables are layered into a shallow baking dish with herbs, seasoning, butter or olive oil, and sometimes cream or stock, and then baked until savory soft, topped with cheese, breadcrumbs, or both, and then browned under the broiler. Sometimes the vegetables can be cut in larger chunks or slices, or even cubed. Potatoes are most commonly used in gratins, but most vegetables will work. Vegetables especially suited to gratins include root vegetables (celery root is terrific), eggplant, tomatoes, peppers, and winter squash. Adding cream, butter, and cheese in between layers will create a very rich gratin, while using just olive oil and softer, juicer vegetables are good for lighter, less filling gratins.

The following recipe is simple and quick to prepare despite what looks like lengthy directions. The slicing of the vegetables and chopping of herbs takes 10 minutes, and making the breadcrumbs takes 5. Use already prepared breadcrumbs if you like, making prep time even less. My recipe for garlic breadcrumbs makes more than you will need, but they freeze very well and are easy to pull out and sprinkle on almost anything baked to add flavor and texture. Top fresh tomatoes with the crumbs and broil for a great side dish, or use as a binder or soup thickener. I used 2 small eggplants for this dish weighing about 3 ounces each. I prefer small, baby eggplants or thin Asian eggplants over the large globe style; I find them less bitter and feel they have better flavor and texture. If you use a large eggplant, which is perfectly fine, you will probably need less slices to cover the bottom of your baking dish. For my cooking vessel I used a shallow Le Creuset ceramic baking dish (a wedding gift from my wonderful culinary arts students), but any shallow baking dish will work. You can also make individual gratins if you like, separating the ingredients into individual creme brulee style ceramic dishes and shortening the cooking time. The cooking time for this gratin is lengthy (most are), but necessary to create a savory soft texture and to concentrate the juices from the tomatoes.

Eggplant-Tomato Gratin with Garlic Breadcrumbs

For the Gratin
-4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
-8 slices eggplant, ¼ inch thick
- ½ sweet yellow onion, sliced thin
-9-10 slices fresh tomato, ¼ inch thick
- ½ tablespoon chopped fresh thyme
- ½ tablespoon chopped fresh oregano
-1 tablespoon chopped fresh basil
-salt and black pepper

For the Bread Crumbs
-3 slices bread, toasted until dry
-2-3 cloves garlic, minced
-1 teaspoon extra virgin olive oil
-1/2 tablespoon of gratin herbs
-small pinch of salt and black pepper

Pre-heat the oven to 400̊F.

Mix the chopped herbs together, setting aside ½ tablespoon for the bread crumbs.

Drizzle 1 tablespoon of the extra virgin olive oil all over the bottom of a 9” by 9” ceramic gratin or baking dish. Layer the slices of eggplant on top of the oil, overlapping if necessary. Season with a small amount of salt and black pepper. Spread the thinly sliced onions evenly over the eggplant. Drizzle with 1 tablespoon of the extra virgin olive oil and half of the chopped fresh herbs. Layer the tomato slices evenly over the onions, overlapping if necessary, and drizzle the remaining 2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil over the tomatoes. Season again with a small amount of salt and black pepper, and the rest of the fresh chopped herbs. Place the gratin dish, uncovered, into the oven and bake for 35-45 minutes, or until the sides begin to brown and the eggplant begins to soften. Place a cover over the gratin and continue baking another 20-25 minutes, or until the vegetables begin meltingly soft and tender. Remove the cover and bake 10-15 minutes more to concentrate the juices. Remove from the oven and set aside.

In a food processor fitted with an S-blade, grind the dry bread slices into crumbs. Add in the minced garlic, extra virgin olive oil, and reserved ½ tablespoon of chopped herbs. Grind again to mix. You will have more bread crumbs than you need, so save or freeze for another use.
Turn the oven to broil. Sprinkle 3-4 tablespoons of the bread crumbs over the top of the gratin. Place under the broiler and broil until the crumbs become brown and crispy, and the gratin juices are bubbling. Serve hot, warm, or even at room temperature.

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