Eggplant Gratin

Eggplant Gratin  | Image:  Laura Messersmith

Eggplant Gratin | Image: Laura Messersmith

As inspiration for more adventurous culinary efforts I’m following along with Ina Garten, aka The Barefoot Contessa, in my tiny New York kitchen. Let’s see if I can keep up with the Contessa!

Episode: “Memory Lane”

The Set-up: Ina is cooking up recipes from the past – question is, will Jeffrey pick up the hint?

The Menu: Steak Sandwiches, Peanut Butter Swirl Brownies, Eggplant Gratin

0:49 – Ina says she used to send Jeffrey boxes of brownies at school and calls it the “culinary equivalent of a low-cut dress.” She’s guessing that after nearly 40 years of marriage her ploy worked – yowza those must be some brownies.

1:16 – She is not messing around with Peanut Butter Swirl Brownies - not only do they have 1 lb. of chocolate, she’s also swirling peanut butter through the batter.

2:23 – As Ina cracks eggs for the batter we get a clip of Jeffrey presenting Ina with a box of brownies as an anniversary present. Romantic indeed. Mike, are you taking notes?

3:07 – Pro Tip#1: to keep the brownies dense carefully whisk the eggs to incorporate as little air as possible.

4:32 – That is an ocean of melted chocolate. I have zero doubt that these brownies are legit because now she’s also adding chocolate chips.

5:11 – Pro Tip #2: Dusting chocolate chips with a small amount of flour will keep them from sinking to the bottom of the batter.

5:54 – Is it just me or did the music go all “sexy” when Ina started swirling the peanut butter through the tray of brownies?

6:48 – A quick break in sifting through snapshots from the 60s (do your parents have boxes of those too?) to enact Pro Tip #3: half way through baking the brownies rap the pan against the rack to release any trapped air.

10:15 – Time to make the Steak Sandwich – a throwback to the first thing Ina ever cooked for Jeffrey. In her words that inaugural sandwich was “tough, dry and grey” so she’s redeeming herself with this one.

11:02 – Pro Tip #4: Get the pan and the oil really hot before adding the steak (NY Strip in this case) so that the outsides sear nicely.

11:39 – Ina remarks that she can’t believe that the smells of steak, brownies and caramelizing onions haven’t lured Jeffrey out of his office. This is a mystery to me too – who could resist investigating?

12:56 – We get a brief peek of Mr. Garten hard at work, and I can’t help but notice that he types ‘hunt and peck’ style. No seventh grade keyboarding class for him I guess.

13:22 – Back to Ina still hating on that bland, 1968 steak sandwich. She’s mixing some mustard – coarse grain for texture, Dijon for flavor – mayonnaise, and sour cream to make a spread.

14:23 – Steak is cooked and Ina exhorts us in Pro Tip #5: to cover it with foil and allow the meat to rest before slicing and serving.

18:27 – We come back from a commercial to Ina cutting the pan of brownies into the most perfect squares. I would love to know how long those cooled, because mine are always a sticky mess when it’s time to pry them out. Side note: Jeffrey is not to be trusted with an entire plate of brownies.

19:35 – Steak, caramelized onions, and arugula with a schmere of mustard spread are assembled on focaccia bread and if this doesn’t wipe out the memory of The Worst Steak Sandwich of All-Time TM pending I don’t know what will. Yum.

20:18 – The Most Adorable Lunch of All-Time TM pending is delivered to Jeffrey, who looks both intrigued and suspicious. “Did I do something right? Did you do something bad?” Ina remains coy and says it’s a special treat and he has to figure it out…

21:29 – A few more snapshots (no Instagram filter required) and Ina makes a startling statement: she and Jeffrey honeymooned in France for four months living in a tent and she cooked in there. I need a minute to process.

22:04 – Eggplant Gratin was the first meal the Gartens treated themselves to in Paris after their camping trip. I’d probably love anything I didn’t have to prepare on a camp stove too…

22:41 – Pro Tip #6: heat the olive oil until it’s very hot before adding the eggplant to prevent the vegetables from becoming soggy.

26:56 – Now Ina is making a mixture from ricotta, cream, and an egg, which looks like a thinner version of lasagna filling.

28:12 – Actually, lasagna is a good proxy for the layering-style assembly of this dish and a lot of the flavors seem similar. Also, I am coveting Ina’s adorable little gratin dishes.

29:22 – Finishing touches on dinner – mescalun salad, baguette, red wine – to be held on the terrace Chez Garten. So simple, but really elegant.

29:55 – Now, for Jeffrey’s test: he correctly identifies all the occasions that these recipes reference and passes with flying colors! Great job Mr. Garten. Gold star.

Final Thoughts:

Recipes that repeat throughout a lifetime or a marriage are always so special, even if and especially if they’re simple classics.

Ina always has just the right equipment to make each dish like those adorable individual gratin dishes. Maybe someday…

The Gartens are seriously so cute, people. I hope the years will be as kind to Mike and I!

Eggplant Gratin   | Image:   Laura Messersmith

Eggplant Gratin | Image: Laura Messersmith

Lessons Learned:

I’ve never made a gratin before, so I was excited to try adding Eggplant Gratin to my repertoire. The actual steps of the recipe aren’t overly difficult, especially if you’ve made lasagna or another layered casserole, so the hardest part for me was patience.

Making sure that the olive oil was quite hot before sautéing the eggplant, resisting the urge to overcrowd the pan – these are my kitchen struggles. I managed to go slow, sauté in batches and take my time with the star ingredient, which paid off when the texture of the eggplant was firm and not greasy.

The ricotta mixture is very straightforward measuring and mixing – but I found that 1/4 cup of ricotta plus 1/4 cup of cream and an egg made for a really thin sauce and I was worried about having too much liquid, so I added another tablespoon or so of ricotta to thicken it up. It seemed to work well, so something to note for the future.

Small Kitchen Friendly?

Yes, absolutely - in the grand scheme of cooking this is really low impact. I used a medium sauté pan to cook the eggplant in batches, 8” pie plate in lieu of gratin dishes, a large dinner plate lined with paper towel, small bowl, and a medium cutting board. For tools I needed a chef’s knife, microplane grater (for the parmesan cheese), measuring cups and spoons, and lastly TONGS. Tongs are an absolute lifesaver when the sauté pan is spattering from the eggplant and it’s time to turn them over.

Eggplant Gratin   | Image:   Laura Messersmith

Eggplant Gratin | Image: Laura Messersmith

The Verdict:

I didn’t realize that Mike knew what a gratin was when I made this for dinner on a rainy Tuesday night, but based on his experience with Potatoes Au Gratin he correctly identified it as Eggplant Gratin before I revealed what we were having.

The eggplant and cheese are really satisfying even though there’s no meat involved, and neither of us missed it. The flavors are simple and delicious which made it a perfect meal that’s not too heavy for summer. I would definitely make this again for us, or when I needed a vegetarian main course at a dinner party.

Lastly, I didn’t think about this before I made the recipe, but Eggplant Gratin is not the most attractive dish. A brownish vegetable under browned cheese – not so cute to take pictures of even if it turns out perfectly, leading Mike and I to coin the phrase #gratinproblems. But I promised to show you how things really look (you’re welcome) and if this goes viral you heard it here first! 

Eggplant Gratin   | Image:   Laura Messersmith

Eggplant Gratin | Image: Laura Messersmith