Sunday, November 01, 2009

Aubergine Provençale: At the end of the season, the best eggplant dish

Having a pair of late eggplants from Roots Farm near Athens, courtesy of Kevin and Maria, I needed to make something I've thought about for a long time.

In France with the family of our "French Son," Thomas Ménard, who spent three summers with us in Atlanta as a teenager, I tasted a wonderful eggplant dish his mother made. Sylvie was from Marseilles and her cooking remained Provençal. I thought she told me this was a "gratin" of eggplant, despite having tomato rather than béchamel (cream) sauce as most gratins do.

Recently Thomas, now an engineer with four kids and working for an American firm, visited me in Atlanta. I recalled the eggplant gratin with him, and he claimed that Sylvie's eggplant gratin did indeed have béchamel. Apparently what I recalled was a different Provençal dish, simply called Provençal eggplant, or in French, Aubergine Provençale.

That's what I made this afternoon. And if that's possible it was even better than what I recalled. Christina and I finished the entire casserole. Then Bona licked out the casserole dish.

The dish makes a delicious supper on its own, or serves as an elegant side dish to grilled chops or roasted meat. We ate it alone, without even salad or bread.

We had a California Merlot, which went well with it. The traditional Provençal red wine would be a Côtes du Rhône, or some other Syrah and Grenache combination.

The recipe serves four to six.

Eggplant Provençal -- Aubergine Provençale

2 (1-pound) eggplants
Salt and pepper
1 egg beaten with 1 tablespoon water
1/2 cup unseasoned bread crumbs
Canola oil for frying
1/2 cup grated Romano or Parmesan cheese
Olive oil for topping and for sauce
1 large clove garlic minced
1 (14.5-ounce) can finely diced tomatoes
1/4 cup water
1/4 teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon sugar
Several small sprigs fresh oregano and basil

Cut stem and 1/8 inch off bottom of eggplants. Peel eggplants in alternating strips, leaving half the skin. Slice 1/2-inch thick. Sprinkle generously with salt, and let sit 1 hour to extract the bitter juices. Rinse and drain well.

Beat egg and water lightly in flat dish. Put breadcrumbs in another dish.

Heat griddle. Oil well with canola oil. Dip eggplant slices in egg, and shake off most. Lightly sprinkle both sides with bread crumbs (use only part), and fry eggplant over medium-low heat. Do this in several batches, removing fried slices to a 9 by 11-inch casserole as they turn lightly golden. Add more oil as needed for frying the subsequent batch(es).

Sprinkle fried eggplant slices evenly with the cheese as they are added to the casserole.

Set oven for 350 degrees.

In small pot, fry minced garlic briefly with 3 tablespoons olive oil. Add tomatoes plus 1/4 cup water to rinse out can. Add paprika, sugar, fresh herbs, and salt to taste. Simmer about 5 minutes, crushing tomato with spoon to soften.

Spoon tomato sauce over eggplant slices. Moisten remaining breadcrumbs with 2 tablespoons olive oil and a light sprinkling of salt and pepper. Sprinkle crumbs over the mixture.

Bake about 40 minutes, or until liquid is bubbling throughout and crumbs darken a little. Remove from oven and let sit 10 minutes before serving.

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