Early last fall I was planning a menu to be executed in someones home. It was going to start with a few appetizers, and the client wanted a selection of gluten free, vegetarian, as well as meat centered apps for guests to graze on before I served dinner.
It was the very tail end of summer, and I went to the farmers market, hoping, praying I could score a couple nice eggplants to work into a rich, tomato gratin scented with wild herbs I’d dried from the growing season. When I talk about wild herbs, there are a lot of them, but the two most useful I’ve found are bergamot (Monarda fistulosa leaves) and dried ramp leaves.
Not only do both of the leaves have a nice, savory punch, they compliment each other too. The ramps taste garlicky, and the bergamot of oregano. In the end, combined with any sort of tomato based sauce, it ends up tasting a bit like what you’d expect pizza sauce to taste like, and since herby-garlicky tomato sauce makes eggplant sing, they’re natural together.
Blanching eggplant: a chef secret
There’s a trick I like to use while cooking with eggplant. Raw, eggplants are full of moisture, and can be bitter with a strange texture. When I cook eggplant, most of the time It undergoes some sort of preliminary cooking to denature it before the final cooking.
The preliminary cooking most people will be familiar with is frying in oil, but I find it soaks up too much and can make a greasy dish. Grilling can work, but the eggplant has to be sliced, and you have to build a mound of coals or monkey with your grill. Baking eggplant can result in an overcooked, mushy mess, which if you’re making spread is great, but not so much for other preparations.
My favorite way to par cook eggplant is to blanch it in salted water, then allow it to cool, without shocking in ice water. Cutting the eggplant into cubes and blanching in boiling water for a few moments changes the structure and the mouthfeel of the eggplant, tenderizing it and making it soft, as well as seasoning it if you added salt to the water, which I always do. From there, the chunks of eggplant can be added to a dish as-is, or be the start of another recipe like my favorite marinated eggplant, where blanched cubes are tossed with hot chilis, oil, salt, vinegar and herbs and allowed to mature for a while.
Puffed wild rice as a good gluten free breadcrumb alternative
You might be wondering what the crispy looking things on top of the eggplant are. The meal I was planning had to be gluten free, so I needed a topping for the eggplant that would be crispy, delicious, local, and, not breadcrumbs. Puffed wild rice is a great thing for stuff like that, although it takes some time to make, a description of the process is in the recipe notes here.
Great served at room temp as part of an appetizer platter. I have a fond memory of eating similarly in Provence.This was hands down the favorite appetizer at the event. It may have been their favorite, but I was a little frustrated since I spent 3 days also making a pate en croute, cold smoking gravlax and stuffing a wheel of brie with truffles to go alongside. In my head I said to myself:
“I made all of that, and what do they rave about? The damn eggplant that was cannon fodder compared to the pate en croute!”
Anyway, it’s good and a fun way to use the bergamot and ramp leaves.
Eggplant Gratin with Bergamot, Dried Ramps, Tomato and Parmesan
- 1 medium sized eggplant skin on, washed
- 1 14 oz can whole peeled tomatoes
- Kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper
- Pinch of chili flakes
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1 large clove of garlic about a tablespoon roughly chopped
- ½ cup carrot onion and celery roughly chopped
- 1 tablespoon crushed dried bergamot, stems removed
- Toasted panko breadcrumbs as needed, about ¼ cup (or puffed wild rice, pictured)
- ¼ cup dry white wine
- ½ cup grated parmesan cheese preferably an Italian reggiano or grana
- Dice the eggplant into ½ inch cubes.
- Bring a 2 qts of lightly salted water to a boil, then add the eggplant, return the mixture to a boil and cook for 2 minutes, until the eggplant turns translucent.
- Remove the eggplant, cool, and gently squeeze out the water in a towel.
- Reserve the eggplant. Sweat the carrot, onion, celery and garlic in 1 tablespoon of the butter for a few minutes until the onion is translucent.
- Deglaze the pan with the wine then add the tomatoes and cook for 10 minutes on medium heat, until the vegetables are tender.
- Transfer the mixture to the bowl of a highspeed blender and puree until very fine, then combine with the eggplant, season the mixture to taste with salt, pepper, parmesan, herbs and the chili flakes, then pack the mixture into a casserole dish, top with the breadcrumbs, dot with the remaining tablespoon of butter, then bake at 375 until hot throughout, browned and bubbly, about 30 minutes.
- Allow to cool for 5 minutes, then serve immediately, warm, or at room temperature.