I wanted to start with something exciting happening in our very valley next week. The wonderful chef and writer Deborah Madison is going to be at the Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley next Wednesday, September 18 at 7:00 PM, for a discussion and book signing of her gorgeous new book, Vegetable Literacy.
In honor of her visit, and in celebration at the beginning of this blog, we’re going to be giving away a copy of Vegetable Literacy to one lucky person. Just leave a note in the comments—your favorite vegetable, what vegetable family you’re most interested in learning about, a vegetable you’d like a recipe for, your best vegetable joke—and we’ll randomly choose one winner from the Hampshire community to be announced next Tuesday. Make sure your comment is posted by noon on Tuesday, September 17 to be considered for the random drawing.
And in honor of Madison’s visit, today’s recipe is going to be from her landmark Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone. I should note that Deborah Madison’s name is one that I will probably mention above all others in this blog. She is, in short, a vegetable genius. Madison’s recipes may not be the quickest or easiest you’ll ever make, but their levels of flavor and sheer deliciousness make them well worth the time and effort. If you’re looking for someplace to start with Madison, I’d recommend either Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone or Vegetable Literacy, but she’s also written books on vegetarian soups and suppers and on farmers markets. I cannot imagine my kitchen without her.
On to today’s recipe: Eggplant and Summer Vegetable Gratin.
In my first post, I sang the praises of a sauce you could make now and eat all winter. In this second post, I’m going to encourage you to make this dish now and only now, savoring the season we’re (briefly) in. This is not a dish that can—or should—be saved for later. Another thing I will note up front. This is not a weeknight dinner, unless you have ample afternoon time in which to make it. It requires almost 2 hours in the oven in total, and you need to be around to perform the various steps. It is totally worth it.
What I love about this dish is not just that it’s a fabulous way to use many late summer vegetables at once. It also taught me a great way to cook eggplant, one I now use for other recipes. Eggplant tends to soak up liquid, so if you fry it, it soaks up the oil and becomes heavy and greasy. Madison’s way of cooking the eggplant is to slice it into ½ inch rounds, brush each side lightly with olive oil, and bake it in a hot oven. The eggplant softens up, and then when you bake it with your sauce, it soaks that up instead of the oil. What you end up with are vegetables that practically melt together and taste almost entirely of late summer.
Although this recipe takes awhile to cook, it’s not hard to make. Basically, you bake the eggplant, make a little fresh tomato sauce, then layer them together in a baking dish. Bake for 45 minutes, then add a layer of breadcrumbs and Parmesan cheese, and bake for another 25 minutes. And voila. A dish that is the essence of late summer in its rich vegetable goodness.
Eggplant and Summer Vegetable Gratin
Adapted from Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone
2 to 2 ½ lbs. globe eggplant, preferably on the small side
salt and pepper
2 large onions, finely diced
3 garlic cloves, chopped
1 large bell pepper, finely diced
2 large ripe tomatoes, chopped (feel free to increase the number of tomatoes if you have them)
10 large basil leaves, torn into small pieces
1 cup fresh bread crumbs
¼ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Preheat oven to 425˚ F. Slice the eggplant into rounds about ½ inch thick – if it’s in season, there’s no need to salt them. Brush both sides of each piece with oil and bake on a sheet pan until browned and tender on both sides, about 25 minutes. Season with salt and pepper and set aside. Reduce heat to 325˚ F.
Heat 3 tablespoons olive oil in a wide skillet, add the onions and garlic, and cook over medium heat until limp, about 8 minutes. Raise the heat a little, add the pepper and tomatoes, and continue cooking, stirring occasionally, until everything is soft and thickened to a jam, about 20 minutes. Raise the temperature at the end to reduce the juices. Add the basil and season to taste with salt and pepper.
Lightly oil a 2 ½ quart gratin dish. Make a layer of eggplant in the bottom and spread a third of the tomato-onion mixture over it, followed by another layer of eggplant, half the remaining sauce, then the rest of the eggplant. End with the remaining sauce on top. Cover the dish and bake for 45 minutes.
Toss the bread crumbs with olive oil to moisten and add the grated cheese. Remove the cover, add the bread crumbs and cheese, raise the oven temperature to 375˚ F, and bake until the crumbs are nicely browned and crisp on top, about 25 minutes.
Notes: I have no idea how Deborah Madison gets 3 layers of eggplant out of 2 smallish eggplants, especially since you can’t slice them too thinly. I’ve never gotten more than 2 layers, ever, though that might be because I use a large baking dish. Don’t worry about the number of eggplant layers. Also feel free to make more sauce than the recipe calls for–if you have extra vegetables, use them! It’s much better to have too much sauce than not enough. This dish is easily made gluten-free (eliminate or substitute the bread crumbs) and/or vegan (nix the Parmesan).
Bonus Eggplant Recipe!
If you want to make a quicker version of this, I highly recommend what I call Accidental Eggplant Parmesan. Bake the eggplant as directed, but instead of making fresh tomato sauce, use the roasted tomato sauce I wrote about last week. (Obviously, you can also use any sauce, preferably homemade, that you have around, but it really is good with the roasted tomato sauce.) Layer the eggplant and sauce with mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses, and bake in a 375 oven for 45 minutes, the dish covered in foil for the first half hour. This is especially good with smoked mozzarella, so good that it’s worth going out of your way to find some, if you don’t have any on hand. Maplebrook Farm, a cheesemaker in southern Vermont, makes lovely mozzarella, smoked and otherwise, that’s available at Whole Foods in Hadley, among other places.
Bonus Eggplant and Tomato links:
Please note that I have no personal experience with these dishes, but I did notice them with interest.
The New York Times food section has an article and several recipes on canning tomatoes in various ways.