Gratin typically brings to mind a rich and cheesy dish of root vegetables (pronounced by all American children to rhyme with “all rotten”). Nutritional guilt over this fat fest drives food bloggers to frantic rearrangements of their refrigerator poetry magnets into epithets like “a holiday indulgence” and “once in awhile treat.” But in the Adams-Rivard kitchen we scoff at such reservations. We eat gratins when we feel like it, whether Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny is joining us for dinner or not. Thank God for bicycles. Which offers me a segue into this week’s dish, Eggplant, Pepper and Tomato Gratin. While pedaling through Provence a month ago we couldn’t help but notice how much lighter Provencal gratins were than their Gerard Depardieu-like cousins to the north. The cream had vanished, along with much of the cheese, both supplanted by olive oil, bread crumbs, and fistfuls of crushed herbs or an herb purée. Olive oil, our tongues reminded us, transforms the flesh of vegetables into something unctuous. Caramelization, the result of roasting, was the gilding on the lily.
There are no hard and fast rules about a this kind of gratin, other than it helps to use the best vegetables available, in keeping with the principle that if you’re going to go skinny dipping it pays to be buff. Tomatoes always help things along, especially Roma (plum) tomatoes, which are not only better cooked than raw, but are often the only decent fresh tomato available outside of the summer months. Root vegetables are welcome, but with evoo, not cream. Jody declined to identify this particular gratin as Mediterranean–you can read why in her notes below. Serve as the centerpiece of a light lunch (healthy blogging parody) or as a side dish, especially with grilled lamb. Nuked leftovers topped with a soft-boiled egg and a splash of sriracha are a great breakfast (Ken blogging parody). Enjoy. Ken
Eggplant, Pepper and Tomato Gratin
Makes one 12-inch gratin.
- 2 pounds medium eggplants
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- ½ cup extra virgin olive oil
- 1 ½ pounds bell peppers, a variety of colors is nice
- ½ pound small onions
- 2 pounds plum tomatoes
- 2 cloves garlic, chopped
- 2 scallions, white and green part chopped
- 1 habanero pepper, core and seeds discarded, chopped
- 2 cups firmly packed basil, parsley, cilantro leaves–I like to use a ratio of 1 cup basil, ¾ cup parsley and ¼ cup cilantro. You can use a combination of basil and parsley or all basil or all parsley. I wouldn’t use all cilantro, it will be too strong.
- 2 cups breadcrumbs
- 1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
- Preheat the oven to 450°F.
- Peel the eggplant. Cut into 1-inch thick rounds. Toss with salt and pepper and then 2 tablespoons oil. Lay out on a sheet pan.
- Cut the peppers in half, remove the core and seeds. Toss with salt and pepper and then ½ tablespoon oil. Lay out on a sheet pan, cut side down.
- Cut the onions in half, toss with salt and pepper and then ½ tablespoon oil. Lay out on a sheet pan, cut side down.
- Cut the tomatoes in half, toss with salt and pepper and then 1 tablespoon oil. Lay out on a sheet pan, cut side down.
- Roast the vegetables in the oven for 20 minutes. Flip the eggplant slices over and turn the pans from front to back. Continue roasting for 15-20 minutes or until tender and the skins of peppers, tomatoes and onions have blistered and the eggplant are golden brown. Each may each take a slightly different amount of time. Remove them as they are done. Cool.
- Reduce the oven to 375°F
- Meanwhile, make the pesto. Put the garlic, scallions and habanero in the blender with ¼ cup water and blend until smooth. Add the herbs and 3 tablespoons olive oil and puree for a few minutes. It should be mostly smooth. Season to taste with salt.
- When the vegetables have cooled, remove the skins from the peppers and onions and cut into ½-inch slices. Toss with the pesto.
- Slip the skins off the tomatoes, but don’t worry about removing the seeds.
- Put the eggplant slices on the bottom of a gratin dish. Spread the peppers and onions over the eggplant. Top with the tomatoes. Bake 30 minutes.
- Toss the breadcrumbs and cheese in a bowl with the remaining oil. Sprinkle over the tomatoes.
- Bake for another 30 minutes. Allow to rest 10 minutes before serving.
This might have passed for a dish from one of my Provencal cooking classes in August, but it wasn’t. I made this a few weeks ago with Claudia Flersismond and her team in the kitchen at the Partners In Health HUM Hospital in Mirebalais, in Haiti. I wanted the kitchen staff to become friends with the hospital’s new convection ovens, so I took a peek in the walk-in and found eggplant, tomatoes and peppers. You can easily roast several pounds of vegetables with a minimum amount of 0il in a convection oven and still end up with something delicious. Roasting concentrates the flavors and caramelizes the natural sugars. Root vegetables in particular shine when roasted, but you can use the same approach to just about any vegetable.
Roasting vegetables and then layering them for a second pass in the oven was not something the cooks were familiar with, but they were game to try, as long as I let them use epices, their all-purpose herb purée, instead of my pesto. As it happened, they liked the dish–and the convection ovens–and I was thrilled when some of them came back for seconds.
I added the breadcrumb and cheese topping for this post. If you don’t each cheese or bread just eliminate them. It’s just as good without the topping.