Prep Time:30 minutes |
Cook Time:30 minutes
Recently, my niece Sary and I ambled up to Winters, California, for a tomato class at Georgeanne Brennan’s farm. I’ve admired Brennan’s cookbooks and articles for years, but this is the first chance I’ve had to cook with her. We gathered with the other students in the cozy kitchen to talk recipes, then headed to the fields to pick Shady Lady tomatoes. It was like an Easter-egg hunt — pull back the bushy leaves of this non-staked variety and look for the fruit in all its stages of ripeness. There were green ones, less green ones, half green/half red ones, and big beautiful ripe red ones. We each got to pick as many as we could (the class description said ten pounds, but Georgeanne let us pick until we couldn’t carry any more since we were one of the last classes of the season). We made all the recipes in our packets — pizza with thick red sauce, tomato-roquefort tart, Provençal braised chicken, goat cheese soufflés, tomato-mozzarella stacks — but we had so many tomatoes and so many good cooks in the group that Georgeanne pulled one more recipe out of her files: a glorious eggplant gratin with a layer of cooked-down tomatoes and a dome of ricotta on top. I got to pick the shiny Japanese eggplants from her garden to make it. It was the best dish of the day.
1 small yellow onion, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
extra-virgin olive oil
1-1/2 lbs ripe red tomatoes, peeled, seeded and coarsely chopped
pinch cayenne pepper
2 lbs Asian eggplants, peeled and sliced lengthwise into 1/2-inch slices
1 cup whole-milk ricotta (see note)
2 large eggs
3/4 cup grated parmesan cheese
about 3/4 cup heavy cream
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
1/2 teaspoon ground pepper
torn basil leaves, about 1/3 cup
In a sauté pan, cook onion and garlic in a few tablespoons of olive oil until soft, then add the tomatoes. Cook, stirring often, until tomatoes are thick and juices are nearly evaporated, about 20 minutes; you should be able to draw a wooden spoon across bottom of pan and it will leave a line. Season to taste with cayenne and salt.
Preheat an oven to 450°F.
Meanwhile in another pan, fry eggplant slices in enough olive oil to cook until soft and lightly browned on both sides. Drain on paper towels. Alternatively, brush the eggplant slices with olive oil on both sides, then place on parchment-lined baking sheets. Roast in the hot oven until lightly browned on both sides, turning once, 15 to 20 minutes total.
In a medium bowl, mix ricotta and eggs with a fork until smooth. Mix in 1/2 cup of the parmesan (reserve the rest for top of gratin). Add enough of the cream to make a thick, pourable mixture. In a small bowl, mix allspice and pepper.
Oil the bottom of a gratin dish or glass baking dish about 10 to 12 inches in length. Arrange the eggplant slices in the bottom of the dish, then sprinkle with salt to taste and the allspice mixture. Spread the tomato sauce over the eggplant and scatter a handful of torn basil leaves on top. Spread ricotta mixture over the top and sprinkle with remaining parmesan. Bake in the hot oven for 10 minutes, then reduce heat to 375°F and continue to bake until surface is golden brown, about 20 minutes more.
note: hand-dipped ricotta cheese will give you much better results than mass-produced ricotta in plastic tubs. Whole Foods often has hand-dipped ricotta in their cheese department. If you can get Bellwether Farm‘s version, all the better. If you have access only to a national brand, be sure to use whole-milk and not part-skim or nonfat, which will be too mealy.