11 August 2009

Sliced eggplants and tomatoes au gratin

Yesterday we picked the first eggplants (aubergines) from the 2009 vegetable garden. There were four of them and they had gotten pretty big — just right, actually. I was impatient to make a dish we've really enjoyed in past summers: a casserole of eggplant, tomato and cheese au gratin.

This gratin is easy to make but takes a little time because the eggplant needs to be pre-cooked. That is, you cut the eggplants into rounds, or slice them the long way, about ¼" thick. Then you oil a baking sheet — if you have a silicon baking pad, that's a good thing to use, as parchment paper would be, to keep the slices from sticking — and arrange the eggplant pieces in a single layer, making sure both sides of the slices are oiled. Olive oil, or a mixture of olive and other vegetable oil, is the best. Sprinkle on a little salt.

Tomatoes from the garden

Put the baking sheet in a hot oven (200ºC/400ºF) for about 15 minutes or until the eggplant slices are sizzling and start to take on a golden color. Repeat the operation as many times as necessary to cook all the eggplant slices you're using, or arrange them on several pans and do them all at once. In our little oven, we needed to cook three batches.

Meanwhile, slice 6 or 8 tomatoes fairly thickly. There are no precise quantities here. As the eggplant slices come out of the oven, layer them in a baking dish and then put a layer of tomatoes slices over them. Sprinkle on salt and pepper, and then put a layer of grated or crumbled cheese on top of the tomatoes. Add herbs — basil is really good, but parsley works too — and sprinkle on some paprika if you want. A combination of smoked and hot paprika is delicious.

Sprinkle on some paprika — sweet, smoked, or hot

Repeat those steps one more time, and then put on a final layer of eggplant slices on top. Drizzle some olive oil over all, and then put on a final layer of cheese. Bake the casserole in a 350ºF/180ºC oven for an hour or so, covering it with foil if the cheese on top starts to get too brown.

What cheese to use? Ricotta and mozzarella come to mind first, but other cheeses, including Swiss Gruyère or French Comté or Cantal would work. Jack cheese would be good. Yesterday, we used "ricotta" in the middle of the layers and mozzarella on top.

Sliced mozzarella cheese on top

About that "ricotta" — I made my own, using a recipe contributed by David Lebovitz and published by Elise on Simply Recipes. Let me say that it was easy to make and turned out to be really delicious. It uses 2 quarts of whole milk and a cup of whole-milk yogurt with a little vinegar and salt. You can add ½ cup of cream if you want — and I did want to, using French crème fraîche épaisse. The recipe worked perfectly. If it needed any modification, it would be the addition of just a little more salt.

Here's the finished casserole

However, the resulting cheese is not really ricotta. It's cottage cheese, and I'm really glad to know how to make cottage cheese because, as far as I know, we can't buy it here in Saint-Aignan. We can often find ricotta, but not always. The cottage cheese worked very well with the eggplant and tomatoes, but it has a consistency that is different from the smoothness of ricotta.

Cooked eggplant slices, raw tomato slices,
and crumbled cottage cheese


Here's what Marcella Hazan says about ricotta in The Classic Italian Cookbook (1980):
Ricotta is a soft, bland, white milk product made from whey, that watery part of the milk which separates from the curd when this is made into cheese... A passable substitute is the more long-lived whole-milk ricotta readily available at most [U.S.] supermarkets.

Perhaps because they are so similar in appearance, some authors suggest that ricotta and cottage cheese are interchangeable. This is a most grievous error. Cottage cheese is completely un-Italian in taste, and should not be contemplated as a replacement for ricotta.
Marcella Hazan states her opinion without beating around the bush, ça c'est clair. At any rate, I thought the cottage cheese was very good, but it was certainly different from ricotta. Judging from what M.H. says, I've never tasted authentic ricotta, which is by-product of cheese-making and is made only in certain parts of Italy.

By the way, good additions to this kind of dish, replacing part of the eggplant or just added in, would be some roasted red bell peppers, or some slices of zucchini treated the same way as the eggplant slices. Here's another idea using the same ingredients from 2004, and one from 2008.

15 comments:

Leon & Sue Sims said...

Yummmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm!!!
Leon

The Beaver said...

Great pictures of the wonderful produce from your garden. One can easily become a vegetarian reading the description of your interesting gratin :-)

melinda said...

i would think u could also do it withoout pre cooking eggplant, no?

Ken Broadhurst said...

Melinda, I think the raw eggplant might render a lot of water, drowning the other ingredients. But I haven't tried it.

Caroline said...

From the ricotta recipe it sounds that you should have produced some wey as a by product. Did you do anything with it? In Holland they make (or at least used to make) a softdrink with wey but I have no idea how and I have forgotten what it is called. I suppose you could use wey as a basis for soup. It is very nutritious!

Ken Broadhurst said...

Caroline, the whey is delicious. I drank some, and I used a good amount of it with some cream and yogurt yesterday afternoon to make a bread pudding, flavored with some plums from our back garden.

Today I added some whey to a pasta salad that otherwise had a dressing of cream, mustard, and mayonnaise, and which seemed too dry. The whey moistened it perfectly.

ladybird said...

Those tomatoes look too good to be true. I can almost taste their juicy flavour, just by looking at the picture! Martine

The Morleys said...

Dear Mr Broadhurst, I came upon your blog by accident, roaming from my own and I must say it is pure joy. I am a Brit who travelled to France weekly for over 10 years but I am currently living an adventure in Borneo with my young family. Your blog brings me a fabulous flavour of everything delightful about France, and especially the cuisine. Merci beaucoup !!

Nadege said...

Oh boy! what a great cooking blog today. But, ca m'enerve because every morning when I walk, I can think of few sentences starting with "ca" (thanks Judy -lol). Ca m'agace... ca me rend dingue!

Ken Broadhurst said...

Ça y est ! Ça me fait rire ! Mais ça ne fait rien...

Jean said...

Ever thought of opening a restaurant????

Seine Judeet said...

haaa haaa Nadege and Ken :))

Great tomates and aubergines and ricotta recipe, too!

Judy

Leesa said...

OMG!! Do you have any left in the freezer?!! I"m coming RIGHT over!!!!!

Ken Broadhurst said...

Leesa, we ate it all! But we have more eggplants and tomatoes in the garden, so we can make it again.

We're going to be busy between Aug. 29 and Sept. 12 or so, but after that...

Elizabeth B said...

I am already a fan of your cooking and dishes, but this is truly wonderful! What a marvelous way to eat fresh and local vegetables, especially aubergines. The way you cut and arrange the layers creates a beautiful dish. Thanks for sharing these techniques.