Gratin of my dreams

I have an Aunt Carol who is fabulous. Truth be told, she’s my step aunt, but I’ve known her as long as I can remember, and she’s so awesome, I can’t not claim her. If my memory serves me correctly, in the early ’70s, she and her equally fabulous husband first moved to Bern, Switzerland, producer of – in my opinion – the world’s best chocolate, where they taught, sang, and accompanied opera. Then, they moved to northern Germany (#2 in chocolate, but it’s a close second), where they continue to live, teach, sing, and breathe opera today.

Now, as I said, Aunt Carol is fabulous, so being fabulous, she has to study and become fluent in Greek after the age of, like, 65. Well, she lives in Germany, which is about 5 minutes from Greece, and lucky me, she’s not vegan, but allergic to dairy, so I am the happiest beneficiary of her notes about Greek peasant food that she eats or actually participates in making. I live vicariously.

Based on Aunt Carol’s descriptions, I’ve added freshly grated turmeric to mashed or roasted potatoes, and improvised a pumpkin pie surrounded in phyllo, which always gets comments like, “Mmmm, it’s like baklava!” Tonight, based on her rough description of a casserole, I came up with this absolutely DELICIOUS gratin. I don’t know how much it tasted like the one Aunt Carol ate on her last trip to Greece, but I assure you, it made me swoon.

Greek eggplant and potato gratin

  • 1 cup olive oil, divided
  • 1 lrg eggplant, thinly sliced cross-wise, about 1/4″ thick
  • 6 red-skin potatoes, sliced about 1/4″ thick
  • 1 14-oz can tomato sauce
  • Juice of 1 lemon
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 yellow onion, sliced
  • Coarse salt to taste

Preheat the oven to 425°. Spray a 9×13″ casserole pan with cooking spray. Heat a large cast iron pan over a little lower than medium-high heat. Add about 1/4 cup of oil to the pan, and fry the eggplant slices in batches, adding oil as needed, until golden or a little darker. Place the tomato sauce, lemon juice, and cinnamon in a bowl, and whisk to combine. Pour about a third of the tomato sauce into the bottom of the casserole pan, layer on half of the potato slices, half of the eggplant, one-third of the tomato sauce, the other half of the potatoes and eggplant, the onion slices, and the last third of sauce. Drizzle on whatever is left of the olive oil. Cover with aluminum foil and bake for about an hour. Test the potato for doneness by poking it with a sharp knife. If it’s soft, uncover the gratin, and bake for another ten or fifteen minutes until bubbling. Generously sprinkle on the coarse salt (Maldon is my preference), and serve.

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The genius of the Mediterranean

I love the food of the Mediterranean. I lived in France for a year – in the Loire Valley, but I prefer the food of Provence. I’ve never been to Italy or Greece, except in my fantasies, but I have been to Spain and Portugal and Israel and Argentina…cultures that emphasize fresh, delicious, in-season produce in their cooking. Cultures that melt tomatoes in olive oil, that brilliantly combine garlic and lemon parts to make miraculous, simple un-sauces, where perfect olives of infinite variety are tapas…

In all of these places, veganism would seem preposterous to most people. Why would you willingly cut out whole categories of food? No matter. I’m grateful for the inspiration. Grateful for the history and tradition and invention.

And so, voila, my homage to the Mediterranean.

I should note that when my 5-year-old tasted this, she said, unsolicited, “You should definitely serve this to your clients. Definitely.” I also think this would make a super yummy pizza topping. And a little secret: the broccoli and tomatoes were left over from a crudite tray. Ew – refrigerated tomatoes. But in this dish, delicious!!

Mediterranean pasta

  • 1 tbsp + 1/4 cup olive oil, divided
  • 2 shallots, finely chopped
  • 2 cups broccoli florets, broken into small pieces
  • 2 cups cherry or grape tomatoes
  • 4 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 1/2 tsp dried oregano
  • 1 15-oz can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
  • 4-5 fat garlic-stuffed olives (or Greek-cured or kalamata), sliced
  • Juice and zest of half of a lemon (I used a Meyer)
  • Kosher salt to taste
  • 1 lb whole wheat penne
  • 1/2 cup almond meal

Put a large covered saucepan of water to boil over high heat. Once boiling, cook the pasta (add salt!) until al dente, and then drain. Meanwhile, heat a large cast iron pan over a bit over medium heat and add the tbsp of oil, and then, one it’s shimmering, add the shallots and broccoli. Saute for 3 or 4 minutes, then add the tomatoes, garlic, and oregano. Coax the tomatoes into melting by poking them with a sharp knife. Add the rest of the oil, the chickpeas, olives, lemon zest and juice, and salt to taste. Let simmer and melt while the pasta cooks.

Heat a small cast iron pan over medium heat, and add the almond meal. Toast, stirring often, for about ten minutes until well toasted but not burned.

Toss the pasta with the sauce, adding a drizzle of olive oil if you like. Sprinkle each serving with almond meal, and serve.