When in France, one of my delights is cooking vegetables. With each season the French look forward to the arrival of fresh produce, and always use it imaginatively. Take for example the talented host who served my husband and me a delicious dish of baked veal slices topped with a beautiful asparagus sauce, or the creative restaurant chef who paired roasted eggplant cubes with fresh orange segments and then topped them with thin slices of dried goat cheese.
My own seasonal creations are far simpler since our rented apartment has a small kitchen. Zucchini (courgettes) and tomatoes are bountiful at the near-by fruit and vegetable stands, so I bought both to make a summer gratin.
A tian, a type of Provencal gratin prepared by baking layers of vegetables in a shallow dish until their flavors meld together, was what I had in mind. For my version, sautéed zucchini slices enclosed layers of cooked onions and sliced summer tomatoes. Fresh basil and an aged chèvre broken into large crumbles added fine accents.
What I like best about this vegetable dish is its versatility. It’s a winner served warm, but also tempting at room temperature. You can offer it as a side to grilled lamb, chicken, or steaks, or present it as a main course for your vegetarian friends. However you serve it, have a crispy baguette on hand to sop up some of the juices in the bottom of the pan.
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Gratin of Zucchini and Tomatoes with Crumbled Goat Cheese
2 lb (4 to 5 medium) zucchini, ends trimmed and squash cut into ¼-inh thick slices
1 1/2 cups chopped onion
About1/2 cup olive oil plus more if needed
Freshly ground black pepper
6 tbsp chopped fresh basil
1 1/2 lb (4 medium) ripe tomatoes cut into 1/4-in thick round slices
6 oz firm goat cheese, broken into small chunks (See cooking note.)
1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese, preferably Parmigiano Reggiano
1. Arrange a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat oven to 425 degrees F. Generously oil a 3-quart baking dish.
2. In a large, heavy skillet set over medium heat, heat 2 tablespoons of the oil until hot. Add enough zucchini slices to fit comfortably in a single layer. Cook turning once or twice until zucchini is golden brown on both sides and tender when pierced with a sharp knife, 5 to 7 minutes. Remove to drain on paper towels. Repeat, adding more oil each time, with remaining squash. The whole process should take 15 to 20 minutes. (If you have 2 large skillets, use both to shorten the time.)
3. In the same skillet heat 2 more tablespoons of oil until hot, and add the onions. Cook, stirring, until softened, 3 to 4 minutes. Stir in 1/4 tsp salt and several grinds of black pepper.
4. Layer half of the zucchini, slightly overlapping, in the baking dish. Season them generously with salt and pepper, and sprinkle with 2 tablespoons of the basil and with a third of the goat cheese. Spread half the onion mixture over the zucchini Top with a layer of tomatoes, slightly overlapping. Salt and pepper tomatoes, and sprinkle with 2 tablespoons of basil and with a third of the goat cheese. Make final layers using the remaining zucchini and then the remaining onions. Salt and pepper well and sprinkle with remaining goat cheese. (Gratin can be prepared 3 hours ahead; cover and refrigerate. Bring dish to room temperature 30 minutes before baking. Wrap remaining basil in a wet paper towel and leave at room temperature.)
5. Bake gratin 20 minutes, then lower heat to 350 degrees F. Continue to bake until vegetables are tender when pierced with a sharp knife and cheese is lightly browned, about 15 minutes more.
6. Remove and cool 15 minutes. Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese and with the remaining basil. Serves 6.
Cooking tip: Any firm, good goat cheese that you can break into pieces will work in this recipe. However, if you have a favorite cheese merchant, ask her or him to recommend an aged chèvre, which will add an extra depth of flavor to this dish.
Copyright Betty Rosbottom 2018