Thursday, August 28, 2008

Summer Vegetable Gratin

So I made this back on Monday, hoping to end my streak of recipes not turning out... and I knocked it out of the park, if I do say so myself... though there were of course some mistakes and things I would do differently, as always, but we'll get to those at the end (though as you can see in the picture above, I probably should have browned it more).

The recipe comes from Cook's Illustrated July & August 2008 issue... which strangely arrived after I received the September & October issue. On this one, I really have to complement the effort of the author, Rebecca Hays, on dealing with the problem of watery and bland vegetable gratins... her method worked like a charm, but let me warn you that it's a total PITA. It takes at least 2 hours (about an hour of prep and an hour in the oven), and you don't even get much of a break while it's roasting because you have to make the topping. It's a pretty serious effort for a side dish... but it is delicious, and you do have time at the end to pan fry some meat/fish while the topping browns and then cools (I just had leftover chicken with it because I was pretty spent at that point).

Here are the ingredients:
  • 6 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1lb zucchini, cut into 1/4" slices
  • 1lb summer squash, cut into 1/4" slices
  • 1.5 lbs tomatoes, cut into 1/4" slices
  • 2 teaspoons table salt
  • 2 medium onions, halved lengthwise and cut into narrow strips
  • 3/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 2 medium garlic cloves, minced/garlic pressed
  • 1 tablespoon minced fresh thyme leaves
  • 1 large slice of white sandwich bread, torn into quarters
  • 2 oz grated Parmesan (1 cup)
  • 2 medium shallots, minced (1 cup)
  • 1/4 chopped basil leaves

The secret to this recipe is salting the zucchini, squash, and tomatoes and squeezing every last drop of excess moisture out of them. The steps are as follows:
  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees, and oil a 13 by 9 inch baking pan with 1 tablespoon oil.
  2. Toss zucchini and summer squash with 1 teaspoon salt and then put them in a colander over a bowl. You need them to release about 3 tablespoons of liquid, which takes about 45 minutes.
  3. While that's happening, slice up your tomatoes and lay them out on a double layer of paper towels on a counter. Sprinkle the slices evenly with 1/2 teaspoon of salt and let them stand for 30 minutes.
  4. Now you have to slice up your onions and start caramelizing them. Heat 1 tablespoon of oil in 12 inch non-stick skillet over medium heat until shimmering. Throw in the onions and 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper. Cook them stirring occasionally, until soft and dark golden brown. 20-25 minutes.
  5. This is where it gets a little tricky, because your zucchini and squash will probably be ready for the next step but your onions won't be done and you don't want them to burn. Just keep an eye on them, or just wait until the onions are done before moving on... I doesn't hurt to let the salted veggies to sit 15 minutes longer, it just means you'll be in the kitchen later.
  6. Put down a triple layer of paper towels on another counter and lay the squash and zucchini slices out on it. Put another triple layer of paper towels down over top and "firmly press" on each slice to squeeze out as much liquid as you can... you don't have to worry about damaging them really, as they are pretty firm veggies.
  7. Move back to the tomatoes and place a double layer of paper towels over them, and also press down pretty firmly on them to get water out (obviously tomatoes are a little more vulnerable, so don't smash them - you want intact slices).
  8. Combine 3 tablespoons oil, 1/2 teaspoon pepper, and thyme in a small bowl. Use half the oil mixture to toss with the zucchini/squash in a large bowl, then lay out the zucchini/squash on the bottom of the oiled baking dish. Spread the caramelized onions over the zucchini/squash. Then spread the tomato slices in slightly overlapping rows over top.
  9. Spoon the remaining thyme/oil mixture over the tomatoes, and you should have something that looks like this:
  10. Bake in the oven until vegetables are tender and tomatoes are brown on the edges, which takes about 40-45 minutes.
  11. While that's going on, process the bread in a food processor until finely ground... ten seconds or so. (About 1 cup of crumbs) Grate your cheese, mince your shallots, and combine them all with the crumbs and 1 tablespoon oil.
  12. Take a breather or wash some dishes if you are industrious.
  13. When I took the baking dish out (probably more like 50 minutes instead of 40-45) it looked like this:
  14. Sprinkle the topping evenly on top, and return to the oven until lightly brown 5-10 minutes.
  15. Chop up your basil while it's browning, and then sprinkle it on top before letting it cool for ten minutes.

So, like I said, this turned out really well... there was virtually no liquid, and the vegetables tasted amazing. What would I do differently? Well I would cut up the squash correctly first! I read the directions wrong and cut them into half moons for some reason... though it didn't seem to affect how the squash cooked, and only made the presentation a little worse. I think I also took my onions off a little early, since I was so scared of burning them... they weren't quite as flavorful as they should have been. I also don't think I had quite enough of them... I would add probably another small onion next time. Similarly I don't think there was a much topping as I would like... more bread crumbs and more cheese please. Maybe 1.5 cups of each? And like I said in the beginning, I should have let it brown longer.

And there you have it. If you want to make it, I would do it soon though while tomatoes are fresh... I don't think this would be nearly as good with supermarket tomatoes in the dead of winter.

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