My new take on a classic I learned years ago.
Eggplant and Ricotta Gratinée
Many of the recipes I attempted when I first got serious about cooking many moons ago have left me with the sweetest nostalgia, even more than some of my beloved childhood dishes. It must be because they are foods I was drawn to and first learned to cook completely on my own. The culinary romance that was brewing in my head took me to the lands of Mediterranean flavors. Being a Southern Italian by heritage, I wasn’t surprised to find myself going in this direction, but at first my snobbism sent me looking for something more glamorous than my grandmother’s meatballs. (Now I think of her meatballs, studded with raisins and pine nuts, as the height of glamour.)
Early on I went out and bought Richard Olney’s big book Provence: The Beautiful Cookbook. I was mesmerized by his descriptions of food and longed to be a part of his gorgeous world of sunflowers, zucchini blossoms, chipped ocher-glazed earthenware, wildly colored Indian tablecloths, rosé wine, anchovies, and garlic. Provence seemed similar in spirit to the Southern Italy I had grown up with, only a lot more chic. It was the Southern Italy of my dreams, where even poor people had charming farmhouses and wore expensive leather sandals. Same vegetables, similar flavors, but, as depicted in Olney’s book, in glorious overdrive. I’ve since more or less gotten over my infatuation with Provence. The adorableness of the décor can get on my nerves, and I know full well that, just like in the Southern Italy of my heritage, there’s a lot of misery under the surface there. (In the town my grandparents came from, the misery was right on the surface.) But I haven’t gotten over, and I’ve come to appreciate even more profoundly, the recipes in Richard Olney’s big book. I page through it every once in a while just to make sure I haven’t forgotten something wonderful.
One of the first things I ever cooked from Provence: The Beautiful Cookbook was Olney’s Gratin D’Aubergines, or Eggplant Custard Gratin. I was drawn to it first because I loved eggplant and second because he called the dish “exquisite.” I thought every recipe in the book was exquisite, so I figured this one must really be something (if you know the book, you know it’s huge and filled with glossy food-porn photos in almost unnaturally intense color). When I first tried the recipe, I had only a week earlier made an exquisite tuna and artichoke braise. I was so proud of myself I could hardly stand it, so I decided I had to go ahead and try the eggplant gratin. It consisted of slices of fried eggplant layered with a fresh tomato basil sauce, covered with a creamy ricotta Parmigiano custard, and finally baked until puffy and tender.
My first attempt was not a success. I failed to drain the ricotta, so the texture was grainy and watery, with large cracks on the surface. I also failed to drain my very juicy summer tomatoes, which gave off so much liquid after cooking that they made the eggplant soggy. Olney doesn’t mention dealing with all that excess liquid, but it really is essential for a good result (maybe his French brousse-a French sheep’s milk version of ricotta-is dry and firm, but seasonal tomatoes, unless you use the plum variety, which he doesn’t suggest, are extremely juicy). The second time, I drained and salted the tomatoes and drained my ricotta, whirling it in a food processor with the eggs and cheese. That made all the difference. The gratin came out creamy and elegant, with all the flavors of my Southern Italian childhood but way more fabulous. It was the best eggplant Parmigiano I had ever tasted. The first few times, I made it in the summer, using locally grown eggplants, which gave it sweetness and, even more important, a lack of bitterness. I tried it again months later, to serve as a Christmas Day offering, and it was not exquisite at all, so I learned that one of the secrets to its exquisiteness was to keep it seasonal.
I hadn’t thought about this dish in a long time, probably in about ten years, in fact, until last week, when I stood eyeing all the gorgeous August eggplants at the Union Square Greenmarket. This summer I had already made eggplant Parmigiano (using my mother’s wonderful recipe, which includes hard-boiled eggs), eggplant stuffed with lamb, eggplant stuffed with eggplant, ciambotta (see my “Lost Recipes Found: What’s in Your Ciambotta?”), caponata, ratatouille with baked eggs, and grilled eggplant with Sicilian nut pesto, so at this point I was getting a little desperate to come up with something fresh before the summer eggplants disappeared and that feeling of missed culinary opportunity set in (which I find extremely upsetting).
This time around I used some exceptional (and exceptionally huge) burgundy-colored heirloom tomatoes (drained, of course), and included a pinch of nutmeg and cinnamon just to warm up the taste. I also found a thick, non watery sheep’s milk ricotta at DiPalo’s fabulous cheese shop. The results were wonderful, better even than I remember from my first go-round. I love this dish, and I’m happy as can be to have it back. Olney felt it was so special it needed to be served as a separate course. I completely agree.
Eggplant and Ricotta Gratinée
(Serves 4 as a main course or 6 as a first course)
3 medium summer eggplants (use the long kind), unpeeled and cut lengthwise into 1/2-inch slices
A pinch of ground cinnamon
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 large summer garlic clove, thinly sliced
1 large shallot, minced
3 medium summer tomatoes, seeded, cut into small dice, lightly salted, and drained for 30 minutes
1/2 cup whole-milk ricotta, drained if watery
2 large eggs
1/2 cup heavy cream
A few scrapings of nutmeg
1/2 cup grated Grana Padano cheese
A large handful of basil leaves, lightly chopped
Season the eggplant slices on both sides with a little salt, and lay them out on paper towels for about 20 minutes (this will allow them to release water, so they brown better). Then season the eggplant with black pepper and the cinnamon.
In a large skillet, heat about 1/2 inch of olive oil over medium flame. When the oil is hot, slip the eggplant into the skillet and brown it all on both sides. You’ll probably need to do this in several batches, adding more oil as it gets used up. Let the eggplant drain on paper towels.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Wipe out the skillet, and add 2 tablespoons of fresh olive oil. Sauté the shallot over medium heat until it has softened. Add the garlic, and let it sauté a minute longer. Add the tomatoes, season with salt and black pepper, and sauté just to warm through, about 3 minutes. Set aside.
In the bowl of a food processor, combine the ricotta, eggs, cream, nutmeg, all but about a tablespoon of the Grana Padano, a pinch of salt, and a little black pepper. Pulse gently, just until the mixture is smooth and creamy.
Line an approximately 9-by-12-inch baking dish with about half of the eggplant slices, letting them overlap somewhat. Pour on the tomato sauce, and smooth it out. Sprinkle on the tablespoon of reserved Grana Padano, and then scatter on half of the basil. Make another layer, using up the remaining eggplant, and then scatter on the rest of the basil. Pour on the ricotta mixture, and smooth the top. Shake the dish gently so the ricotta can settle. Bake, uncovered, until the gratinée is lightly golden and puffy, about 30 to 35 minutes. Let rest about 10 minutes before serving.