Eggplant, Sweet Pepper, and Bechamel Gratin {Gluten-Free}

A rich and creamy eggplant gratin recipe brimming with the flavors of late summer: sweet peppers, roasted garlic, caramelized onions, and tender eggplant all smothered in a Parmesan and thyme-kissed bechamel.

It feels like summer is never going end here in the Bay Area. Despite being shorter in length, the days are sunny and warm, and the markets still abound with stonefruit, eggplant, summer squash, and peppers. At Pizzeria Delfina last night, we sat outside in shirtsleeves and devoured a cool tomato soup drenched in good olive oil and lumps of gooey burrata, sweet peppers fried in whisper-light tempura batter with Calabrian chile aïoli, and eggplant parmesan baked in an individual cast iron skillet. There were spicy green beans, tender zucchini, and berry gelati for dessert. The calendar may say Fall is here, but the table was all summer.

This is not atypical for Northern California, yet the incongruous weather never fails to throw me. When I first moved to San Francisco ten years ago, I made friends with a bartender at Cafe Gratitude who liked to host private dinners from his home in Cole Valley. Jake (whom we would later dub “Jake the Flake”) asked me to bake desserts and fresh bread for a “Fall Harvest”-themed dinner, which I agreed to do at cost because I was so excited about the concept, and hoped that it would lead to more collaborations. I spent the weeks leading up to the dinner testing recipes in our sweltering kitchen: vegan pumpkin pie thickened with pureed cashews, caramel-glazed tarte tatin, rustic rye bread, and loaves of black olive fougasse whose dough got a 3-day fermentation for extra flavor.

On the day of the event, I arrived an hour early at Jake’s house with desserts and bread in tow. It was a warm day, more reminiscent of summer than fall. I expected the kitchen to be a frenzied mess of autumnal ingredients – brussels sprouts, cranberries, winter squash, sweet potatoes – but instead the kitchen gleamed, spotless, as Jake lazily switched off the TV and gave me a run-down of the menu-to-be. “I went to the farmer’s market this morning,” Jake said, “and they didn’t really have any fall stuff. So I guess it’s gonna be more like a late summer meal.” He showed me the host of melons, cucumbers, tomatoes and peppers he had purchased, and I wondered to myself why they weren’t in prepared form with dinner for twelve a mere hour away.

Jake put me to work setting the table for guests, a collection of Jake’s friends and Cafe customers who had each payed $40 for their multi-course meal. I don’t remember much about the food we served that night, probably because I didn’t get to eat any of it. Jake threw things together as we went, and I spent most of the meal running dishes to and from the long table. There was a chilled melon soup that Jake pureed up on the fly, and a half-hearted nod to fall with a green salad dressed in a touch of fresh pomegranate juice. Whatever the entree was, Jake made what he thought was an extra plate for us to share. After bringing the plates to the guests’ table, we stood in the kitchen, forks poised over our scraps of food, when a guest came in to tell us that we were one plate short out front.

In spite of Jake’s caution-to-the wind approach as a chef, the food he put out was light and fresh, consisting mostly of vegetables prepared to order. Plates were a panoply of color that let the produce take center stage. Until it was time for dessert.

Next to Jake’s dishes, my offerings seemed stodgy, heavy, and out of place. The guests were polite about them (they were probably just thrilled to have something substantial to eat after all the raw vegetables) but I felt embarrassed by the whole situation, as though I’d shown up to a pool party wearing a floor-length fur coat.

I wish I could say that Jake and I went on to work together in a more organized fashion; instead, I spent the next year chasing down the money he owed me, hence his new title. I did learn a couple of lessons, though. The first was to be careful who you work for; life is way too short for those kind of shenanigans.

The second lesson is that San Francisco seasons don’t follow the calendar the way they do in other parts of the country. If you sense a slight crispness in the air come September, don’t be fooled into stocking up on roots and tubers. Better to stick with tomatoes and plums for the heatwave that inevitably hits in early October. Though I wouldn’t mind dressing in boots and sweaters, crunching leaves under my feet in the brisk air, and tucking into a bowl of butternut soup for dinner, I’m also thrilled to get more time with dry-farmed tomatoes, eggplant, and sweet peppers, which are currently at their peak.

Like Jake long ago, I couldn’t resist the crates of pretty summer produce at the farmer’s market the other day. The magenta and aubergine eggplants called my name, and so did the super sweet Jimmy Nardello peppers at the Riverdog Farm stand. I cooked them into this gratin, which straddles the line between summer and fall with loads of late-summer vegetables coated in a nap of bechamel and baked until tender. It’s a rich dish, deeply flavorful, and one that’s best made on a genuinely cool day, when you don’t mind having the oven on for a good couple of hours. Garlic and eggplants are roasted. Sweet onions and peppers get a long, slow cook on the stove. The whole thing is layered in a parmesan and thyme-kissed bechamel and baked until bubbly. You’ll want to serve scoops of this with a light green salad, and perhaps some good bread or toast for mopping up the sauce.

Best of all, this is a great dish to make ahead of time, so you won’t get caught flaking on your dinner guests.

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Eggplant Endeavors:
Curried Roasted Eggplant with Smoked Cardamom and Coconut Milk
Roasted Eggplant, Chickpea, and Summer Vegetable Tagine
Tiny Eggplant with Muhammara and Feta

One year ago:
Apple Quince Tart with Gluten-Free Buckwheat Crust

Two years ago:
Maple Bourbon Pecan Ice Cream
Curried Carrot Soup with Ginger and Coconut Milk

Three years ago:
Cardamom Honey Granola

Four years ago:
Huckleberry Chèvre Cheesecake Squares

Five years ago:
Mugolio (Pine Cone Bud Extract) Ice Cream

Eggplant, Sweet Pepper, and Bechamel Gratin {Gluten-Free}

I make this rich, late-summer gratin using small, fresh globe eggplant and super sweet Jimmy Nardello peppers. Jimmy Nardellos are long, slender, and bright red. They look like they should be spicy, but are actually the sweetest pepper there is, with a thin skin that makes them perfect for sauteing. Gypsy or bell peppers can be used in their place. If using larger, older eggplant, you’ll want to sprinkle the slices with a tablespoon or two of salt and let them drain in a colander to sweat out the bitterness. Rinse these and pat them dry before proceeding with the recipe. I like to leave the skin on the eggplants (particularly when using fresh, small, in season specimens) but feel free to peel it if you prefer. Traditional gratins usually have butter-moistened bread crumbs on top, which I decided to forgo, but you could certainly add some, tossed with the parmesan, if you were feeling it. We make this a meal with a green salad, a glass of white wine, and some crusty bread to dip into the gooey sauce. Leftovers are fabulous warmed and piled on a piece of crusty toast. This amount fits perfectly in a 10″ cast iron skillet, but could also be layered and baked in a 9×12″ lasagna pan.

Makes 8 small but rich servings

For the roasted garlic:
1 large head garlic
1 tablespoon olive oil
big pinch salt
good grind pepper

For the eggplant:
3 1/2 pounds globe eggplant, trimmed and cut into 1″ thick rounds
6 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
1/2 t freshly ground black pepper

For the peppers:
1 pound Jimmy Nardello peppers (or other sweet red pepper such as bell or gypsy), stemmed, seeds and ribs removed, sliced fairly thinly
2 large cipollini onions (or 1 large yellow onion), peeled, halved, and thinly sliced
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
1/2 cup dry white wine (such as Sauvignon Blanc)

3 tablespoons butter
5 tablespoons sweet white rice flour (or all-purpose wheat flour if not gluten-free)
cloves from the roasted garlic
1 tablespoon thyme leaves
3 cups whole milk
1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/2 cup grated parmesan, plus another 1/2 cup for the top of the gratin (4 ounces / 110 grams total)

InstructionsRoast the garlic:
Position racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven and preheat to 400ºF.

Cut the top off the garlic head, exposing the cloves. Place the head cutside-up in a small baking dish and drizzle with the oil, salt, and pepper. Roast in the oven until deeply golden, 35-45 minutes. Let cool completely. When cool, squeeze the cloves out and into a small bowl.

Prepare the eggplant:
Divide the eggplant slices between two rimmed baking sheets and drizzle each with half of the oil, salt and pepper. Toss the eggplant slices to coat them as much as possible; there won’t be enough oil to coat each piece, but it will cook up fine anyway. Roast the eggplant at 400ºF until golden and tender but still holding a shape, 30-40 minutes, turning the eggplant after about 20 minutes when the bottoms are golden. Remove from the oven and let cool.

Prepare the peppers:
Over a medium flame, heat the oil in a 10″ oven-proof skillet with 2-inch high sides (or another wide skillet if you plan to bake this in a lasagna pan instead). Add the onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until wilted and tender, 5-10 minutes. Add the peppers, thyme, salt, and wine. Increase the heat to bring the pan to a simmer, then cover partially, lower the heat, and simmer until the peppers are very tender and the pan is mostly dry, 30-40 minutes.

Make the bechamel:
In a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan, melt the butter over a medium flame. Work in the flour until a paste forms, then add the roasted garlic. Cook, stirring and mashing, for a few minutes, then gradually work in the milk. Add the thyme, salt, and pepper. Cook the bechamel, stirring frequently to prevent clumping or scorching, until it comes to a boil, 5-10 minutes. It will be very thick and gloopy. Let it boil for 1 minute (this cooks the starches in the flour) then remove from the heat and stir in the 1/2 cup of parmesan.

Assemble the gratin:
Smooth the pepper mixture into an even layer in the skillet (or the bottom of a 9×12″ lasagna pan), and spread half of the bechamel on top. Arrange the eggplant slices in concentric circles over the bechamel, using wider slices on the outside and small ones on the inside. Spread the eggplant with the remaining bechamel, and sprinkle evenly with the remaining 1/2 cup parmesan.

Bake the gratin at 400ºF on the upper rack until bubbling and deep golden, 35-45 minutes. The pan will be very full, so place a rimmed baking pan underneath it to catch any drips if needed.

Let the gratin cool and settle for at least 15 minutes, then scoop out onto plates and serve warm or at room temperature. It will be quite gooey when hot, but will firm up as it cools. Leftovers keep well, refrigerated airtight, for up to 5 days. (Don’t store it in the cast iron pan as it will remove the seasoning and pick up off flavors.)

39 thoughts on “Eggplant, Sweet Pepper, and Bechamel Gratin {Gluten-Free}”

    1. Oh, you're right! That's something I've been wanting to make, and I didn't even realize that I kinda did! I had a hard time photographing this guy, too. Thank you so much for the kind words, lady. :)

  1. Alanna, I don't even know where to start on this beauty! I have such a deeply rooted in childhood love for eggplants and coming from a Slavic background they were usually served "creamy" rather than "spicy". I love both now but the dish you created has an incredible pull on me! Also, how gorgeous are stripy eggplants! Canadian thanksgiving is coming up and I am so tempted to re-create this gratin for our turkey dinner. I know my family will love it!

    1. Aw, thank you Julia! I would really like to try eggplants prepared that way – yum! Please let me know how you like this gratin – perfect for a big family meal.

  2. I just wanna say how gorgeous your photography is! I was really floored by this one. I saved your food photography tips entry from a couple months ago, which was enormously helpful. These pics are stunning. I turned vegan a few months ago, so I will probably never make this and I *still* read the entire post. Charming and funny, as always! Looking forward to making your (mostly) raw vegan pumpkin pie soon for Thanksgiving!

    1. Thanks, Vanessa! I'm so glad you're finding the photo tips helpful. Cheers to your new vegan status! That pie is one of my favorites – I hope you love it, too. :)

  3. globe eggplants, peppers, squashes, and zucchini are still coming our way here in alabama, too. your beautiful eggplant dish is a perfect fit for right now — not quite summer and not quite fall.

  4. I love the background story for this! Some wise lessons learnt. The weather is just starting to pick up and all of this is in season at the stores right now. I'll definitely be giving this a go!

  5. as i was reading this i started making a mental grocery list. i have two eggplants at home that need cooking and i think i'm going to give this recipe a go tongiht! the weather is right for it here in Ohio!

  6. I'm just about to assemble this divine smelling gratin, what temperature should the oven be? I'm assuming 400 since I couldn't find a number. By the way, you're recipes rock….

    1. I hope you loved it! Yes, 400 was correct, same as in the other steps. Sorry that wasn't clear – I'll update the recipe. Thanks a bunch for giving it a go!

  7. I made this delicious dish and added a pound of browned ground lamb on top of the onions & green peppers. I also added about 3 times the fresh thyme. It was wonderful but still lacked some flavor. Perhaps my head of garlic was too small?
    I will definitely put this on my regular rotation of special dishes.
    Thank you!

    1. Hi Debra, I bet lamb would be great here – like moussaka! I would just increase the other flavors next time since the lamb adds more bulk spreading the seasonings more thin. Let me know how it goes if you remake it. :)

      1. Thank you! That makes sense that the lamb spreads the flavors and so more seasoning is required! I will surely make this again, many times. It was delicious as leftovers also!

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