I have a funny relationship with eggplants.
I love their gorgeous purple sheen. I think they can taste rather delicious. Weirdly, in college, I used to run off at the mouth about how they have no nutritional value (Remember that, Dad?!). Wherever did I get that idea?
The problem is that more often than not, when I buy an eggplant (heck! even when I grow an eggplant), it sits around on the counter or in the refrigerator for an awfully long time -- not the best way to treat the lovely vegetable.
I'm at a loss as to what to do with them. Yes, I love baba ganoush and grilled eggplant and it's true that ratatouille can be really quite satisfying.
I suppose that I just lack real inspiration in the eggplant department.
So I turn to friends like Alice Waters for help. In the vegetable arena, Waters has yet to let me down. I've mentioned her fantastic work, Chez Panisse Vegetables, previously.
I'd almost certainly be lost without her. Chez Panisse Vegetables is organized alphabetically by vegetable, making it exceedingly reader-friendly. And during this season of abundance, when we are bringing home vegetables by the truck-load, it is very comforting to have Waters by our side.
So with an eggplant waiting impatiently in the crisper, I optimistically turned to E. And right there I found the perfect dish to take advantage of my lonely eggplant and bounty of tomatoes from the garden -- Eggplant, Tomato and Onion Gratin.
To my mind, Waters is using the term gratin very loosely. There are no bread crumbs or cheese in sight. Perhaps the cookware you use, alone, is enough to support the name.
In any event, the dish is quite delicious in a pure and honest way. There are few other ingredients beyond the tomato, eggplant, and onions. No intense sauces or oily cheeses are masking the flavors of the vegetables here.
Because this gratin is so simple and the flavor is entirely dependent on the quality of the ingredients, choose your produce wisely! Utterly ripe tomatoes and firm glossy eggplants are imperative.
The recipe calls for Japanese eggplants, but I'll confess to using a regular old globe eggplant from the farmer's market and a bit of a beautiful white eggplant from the C.S.A. These proved more than adequate. I plucked the reddest, heftiest tomatoes right off the vine and a few bushy sprigs of thyme out of the flowerpot just before preparing dinner.
This is summertime cooking!
Waters suggests serving this with grilled or roasted lamb. As terrific, was pairing it with couscous with toasted almonds, raisins and green onions and superb merguez sausage from McCall's Meat and Fish Company in Los Feliz.
What was left, perfectly fed little Fe's ever expanding palate. It also satisfied us mightily the next evening served over penne with grated parmesan and chopped basil strewn about. It proved an excellent vegetarian supper.
Eggplant, Tomato, and Onion Gratin
3 large, sweet white onions
3 cloves garlic
2 to 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil
2 or 3 sprigs thyme
1 bay leaf
Salt and pepper
3 medium Japanese eggplants
3 ripe tomatoes
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
Peel the onions and garlic and give them a fine chop. Cook them, along with the thyme leaves, the bay leaf, and salt and pepper in the butter and half the olive oil in a medium sized pot over a medium flame, covered for about 5 minutes, until soft.
Cut the eggplants into 1/4-inch thick slices. Cut the tomatoes into slightly thicker slices.
Butter a gratin dish.
Pluck the bay leaf out of the onion mixture, and cover the bottom of the gratin dish with the onions. Cover them with rows of overlapping and alternating tomato and eggplant rounds. Season with salt and pepper. Drizzle with the remaining olive oil, cover with foil and cook in the oven until the eggplant is soft, about 45 minutes. Remove the foil for the last 15 minutes or sooner if the tomatoes are giving up too much liquid. Spoon the juices over the top from time to time during the cooking, so the top does not dry out.
The gratin should be moist but not at all watery.