It seems like every food blog I read a couple of weeks ago had a recent entry about the animated film Ratatouille. I was never a big cartoon person, though I do enjoy the ones really aimed at adults, such as Shrek and Happy Feet. I was rather intrigued when the trailer for Ratatouille came out, but I very rarely see a film in the cinema, and so I'll wait till it comes out on Netflix. As for the French dish from which the film takes its name, I do keep meaning to make one. I have an intriguing recipe for Polynesian Ratatouille that I hope to get to soon, but when I look at the ratatouilles my favourite food bloggers are trying, with their bright cartoon-like colours, the first thing I think is not ratatouille at all but gratins.
Gratins is one of my favourite casseroles, and it's extremely versatile and relatively easy to make. My mother got the basic recipe from my aunt when I was in high school, and it quickly made it to her standby list. Unlike me, mom isn't much of a recipe person, but once she finds something she likes she gets creative, cooking from memory and adjusting quite a bit as she goes along. Unfortunately, a lot of the things she makes involve meat, so that leaves a limited selection to choose from when I'm visiting. That's all right, though, because I will never get sick of gratins.
You can use any vegetable you want, pretty much, though some combinations are better than others. If anyone can think of a vegetable I haven't yet tried to include, I'll give it a go; I love new ideas. The most important parts are really the crumbly topping made with Ritz cracker crumbs, herbs, olive oil, and Feta cheese, and the onions on the bottom. The onions are not optional.
So you want to start with the onions. Mom and I cheat a little with this, and incidentally I've found our method for onion-cooking to be quite good when you don't really have anything else you need to sauté and don't want to dirty a pan. Thinly slice an onion and toss it with some olive oil and fresh chopped mint or thyme in a bowl and microwave until it's tender, up to four minutes. If the casserole dish you're using is small enough, you can even go ahead and put the onion slices in a layer on the bottom of the dish and drizzle with the oil and herbs, then microwave in the dish. Otherwise, spread the cooked onions at the bottom of your dish, and if there's not enough oil to get the dish a bit greasy, drizzle some more on top. Incidentally, you can use canola with this recipe but I really prefer olive, especially with the cracker crumbs.
Next step is the vegetables. I'll give you a list of those I've tried and what I like and don't like here, but whatever you use you want to wash, peel if necessary, and slice into rounds of moderate thickness. And if you're using eggplant, you have to pre-roast the slices for about twenty minutes at 425, sprinkled with salt.
It's all about balance here, with taste but especially with moisture. If you use too many "wet" vegetables like tomatoes, squash, or zucchini, the gratins will be very wet and it will seem to take forever to cook, while you nervously eye the quickly browning topping. I like to balance these wetter vegetables with potato, which tends to absorb liquid better.
There aren't many vegetables I've tried that I don't like in this recipe. I find potatoes to be a problem if they aren't precooked or are sliced too thick, but that can be overcome by boiling them a few minutes before slicing. Squash needs something a little stronger to balance its mild flavour, so I often do a combination with squash and tomatoes. I like to combine eggplant and tomato, and one of my all time favourites is squash and red and green tomatoes, which are something I really miss from home. One day I'll have a garden and it will have nothing but tomatoes, which I will always pick green. And possibly thyme and rosemary as well.
Anyway, you want to arrange the vegetables you choose in overlapping rows in your dish. Sprinkle some feta in between the layers, as well as a bit of topping if you like. That's optional, and it's a bit healthier not to, but I often do. I don't measure with the topping, so you'll have to eyeball it, but basically you want to crush a bunch of Ritz crackers up with herbs (I like rosemary, thyme, salt and pepper) and enough olive oil to make it sticky. If you don't put it in between the layers, at least drizzle some olive oil in there. Make sure there's plenty of oil for the topping or your crackers will burn. So stick that and more cheese on top, and then put in the oven, uncovered, for about seventy minutes at 375. I usually lower to 350 somewhere in there, because the topping tends to brown quickly and you don't want to take it out of the oven until the juices have stopped bubbling or at least have calmed down considerably. When you do take it out, let rest at least fifteen minutes before serving.
As for substitutions, I've used different cheeses when I didn't have Feta, including goat cheese and asiago, and they worked fine, but you want to make sure the cheese is well-covered by the crackers if you try this because cheeses that melt more easily will get a bit too brown or burn otherwise. We also had gratins for Easter this year, which happened to fall during Passover, so my mother made a version for me with matzo crackers. It wasn't quite Ritz, but still decent.