Most Provençal gratins of eggplant consist simply of alternate layers of precooked eggplant slices and stewed tomato, the surface sprinkled with cheese, or, in some instances, there is only an intermediate layer of stewed tomato with béchamel poured over the surface and sprinkled with cheese. This recipe seems to me very much more interesting, both from the point of view of presentation and of flavor. Often the eggplant is parboiled rather than being precooked in olive oil, but the latter method lends a more exciting savor. In any case, the eggplant must be precooked and the usual reason for failure is insufficient precooking; the stem end is tougher than the rest of the flesh, requiring longer cooking, and the slices should not be removed from the olive oil until the stem end offers no resistance to a knife tip.
With any preparation involving eggplant precooked in olive oil, it is a mistake to add more oil, for the eggplant has, in its first cooking, absorbed a great deal of oil, which, even though the slices are drained on towels, is partly retained and exuded during the subsequent cooking process.
Cook the eggplant slices in hot olive oil (turning the flame up or down as necessary to achieve even coloring without burning) until golden brown on both sides and tender at all points. Drain on absorbent paper toweling (for this quantity, the slices will probably have to be fried in three batches, additional oil being added to the pan for each).
Cook the onion in olive oil for some 15 minutes until soft and yellowed, but not colored. Add the garlic and the tomatoes, season, turn the flame high, tossing several times, until well heated, then simmer gently—for 15 minutes or so—until the tomatoes’ liquid is almost completely reduced. Taste for salt.
Mash the white cheese with a fork, mixing in the egg—first stirring, then beating. Season and stir in enough Parmesan to bring the mixture to the consistency of a thick paste, then stir in cream until a heavy but easily poured creamy consistency is achieved. Taste for salt.
Line the bottom of a gratin dish or shallow baking dish with half of the eggplant slices, grind over a bit of pepper, tear the basil leaves into tiny pieces, sprinkling the surface evenly with leaves and flowers, sprinkle lightly with cheese, and spoon the tomato mixture evenly over the surface. Gently press the remaining eggplant slices into place and spoon the cheese-custard mixture regularly over the entire surface. Sprinkle generously with Parmesan and put into a fairly hot oven (425° to 450°), turning it down after some 10 minutes to about 375°, counting approximately 25 minutes or until the surface has swelled, no depression remaining in the center, and it is uniformly colored a rich golden brown.
Copyright © 1974 by Richard Olney. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.