Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Succulent, Savory, Simple
With a few select ingredients, fresh from the market and not long from the South Florida farm fields, an impressive lunch for friends came together with just a few easy steps. Individual eggplant and tomato gratin with mint, kalamata olives and feta cheese accompanied by a crisp green salad turned out to be a hit with my recent luncheon guests.

Gratins ready for the oven

This dish can be assembled in a full size oval gratin dish, to serve family style. The dish should be shallow to allow the gratin to crisp nicely. A deep dish pie plate would work, too. The prep has three main steps: preparing the eggplant, cooking the onions and garlic and assembling the gratin (layering all the components).

For the eggplant: 2 lb eggplant; 2 1/2 Tbs olive oil; 1/2 tsp coarse salt.
For the onions: 2 Tbs olive oil; 2 medium onions, thinly sliced; 2 cloves garlic, minced.

For the assembly: 3 or 4 ripe red tomatoes, cored and cut into 1/4 inch slices; 1/4 cup chopped fresh mint; 1 cup of crumbled feta cheese; 1/3 cup pitted and quartered kalamata olives; coarse salt; freshly ground black pepper to taste; 1 1/2 Tbs olive oil; 1/3 cup fresh breadcrumbs, tossed with 1 tsp olive oil; 1/3 cup chopped toasted pine nuts (optional).

Cut and cook the eggplant: Trim the ends from the eggplant and, using a vegetable peeler, peel off 1/2 inch strips of skin along the length of the eggplant every 1/2 inch or so (or leave it unpeeled, if you like). Cut the eggplant crosswise into 3/8 inch slices and cut the widest slices in half. Heat the oven to 450°F. Cover a baking sheet with parchment paper. Lightly brush the parchment with olive oil. Arrange the eggplant slices in one layer on the parchment, brush them with olive oil and sprinkle with 1/2 tsp salt. Roast until the slices are lightly browned and somewhat shrunken, 20 - 25min. Let cool. Reduce oven to 375°F.

Cook the onions: While the eggplant is roasting, heat 2 Tbs olive oil in a medium skillet. Add the onions and sauté, stirring frequently until limp and golden brown, about 20 minutes. Reduce the heat to med low once they start to brown. Add the garlic and sauté for a couple of minutes until soft and fragrant. Spread the onions and garlic evenly in the bottom of a well oiled 2 qt shallow gratin dish or individual dishes, as pictured. Let cool.

Assembly: Put the tomato slices on a shallow plate to drain for a few minutes and then discard the collected juices. Sprinkle 1 Tbs of the mint over the onions. Starting at one end of the baking dish, lay a row of slightly overlapping tomato slices across the width of the dish; sprinkle with some of the mint and some of the feta. Next, lay a row of eggplant slices against the tomato slices (overlapping the first row by two-thirds). Sprinkle again with mint and feta. Repeat with alternating rows of tomato and eggplant slices, seasoning each as you go and occasionally pushing the rows back. Tuck the quartered kalamata olives randomly between tomato and eggplant slices. When the dish is full, sprinkle the vegetables with about 1/2 tsp salt and any remaining mint and feta. Season lightly with freshly ground pepper and drizzle with 1 1/2 Tbs olive oil. Thoroughly combine the breadcrumbs and pine nuts (if using) with 1 tsp olive oil and sprinkle mixture over the gratin. Cook until well-browned all over and the juices have bubbled for a while and reduced considerably, 60 - 70 minutes. Let cool for at least 15 minutes before serving.

Fresh breadcrumbs made from rye bread.

I used one eggplant, two onions, and three tomatoes for the 3 servings shown above. That would also fill a 10" gratin dish. The recipe is easily expanded to accommodate larger portions. This is a very forgiving assembly. Don't skimp on the feta, salt as you go along and use good olive oil to bring out the best flavor. Fresh breadcrumbs give the dish an over the top finish.

Till next time. . . keep on cooking.

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