Zucchini-Tomato Gratin

Tomato & Zucchini Vegetable Gratin

Well, she’s got another winner.  I am so very glad that I instituted the “Cookbook Challenge” um, for myself, because before this week I hadn’t picked up Patricia Wells’ The Paris Cookbook in many, many years except to hunt down restaurant recommendations.  What a great resource it is!  Despite its major failing, the utter lack of food porn, each of the three recipes I made this week has been absolutely delicious.  From the earthy, layered flavors of the lentil salad to the creamy texture of the cheesy polenta to this newest revelation – a bright, fresh-tasting gratin – Patricia Wells has not disappointed me yet.


When I generally think of gratins, my mind’s eye sees a heavy spoonful of stacked sliced potatoes oozing cream and dragging strings of elastic cheese from the serving dish.  It is a lovely picture, indeed, yet the subject of today’s post is rather the opposite in terms of the key words “heavy”, “oozing”, and “cream”.  Thankfully, the cheese remains, standing alone as it were, to defend the moniker “gratin”.


The internet reveals a bit of a controversy over the exact definition of a gratin.  Some define the term as “A top crust consisting of browned crumbs and butter, often with grated cheese”, and others deny the primacy of the bread crumbs, defining au gratin as “any dish having a lightly browned, crisp crust on top, esp. one topped with bread crumbs or grated cheese and broiled briefly.”  About.com gives an explanation for the discrepancy: “In English, au gratin usually means ‘with cheese,’ whereas in French it’s more like ‘baked dish with crusty top.'”  Anecdotal evidence on the same site verifies that this crust may be composed of any number of alchemic reactions: “According a French friend of mine, le gratin dauphinois, aka pommes de terre dauphinoises, should never include cheese. The real thing is made with potatoes baked in a simple béchamel sauce or a mix of milk and cream which cooks away and leaves the impression of a kind of cheesy sauce.”

gratin-3Whatever your definition of gratin, I would argue that cheese-on-top is never a bad call.  This dish uses Parmigiano-Reggiano to create a bubbling, browned surface layer that belies the vibrant, clean flavors beneath.  Since Patricia is such a stickler for “very good” and “fresh” and “the best you can find” ingredients throughout her book, I felt it would be a failure to do anything less than OBEY on this first Cookbook Challenge.  Thus, I used day-old sourdough bread from a local bakery, San Marzano canned tomatoes, and authentic Parmigiano-Reggiano from my favorite cheese shop.  I can’t tell you if it made a difference, since I’ll never make it any other way – this was really really good.  I’ll also never look at the word ‘gratin’ with such a narrow mind – it seems that the possibilities for layering, binding, and topping this shallow-dish creation are truly infinite.  Just don’t forget the crust…


Richard-Lenoir Market Zucchini-Tomato Gratin, from Patricia Wells’ The Paris Cookbook
(4 Servings)

1/3 c. fresh breadcrumbs
1 lb. small fresh zucchini, scrubbed and cut into thin rounds
fine sea salt to taste
12 zucchini blossoms (optional)
2 c. Tomato Sauce (see below recipe)
1 c freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F. In a 1-quart gratin dish, layer half of the bread crumbs, half of the zucchini, a fine sprinkling of sea salt, half of the zucchini blossoms, if using, and half of the tomato sauce. Continue with the remaining bread crumbs, half of the cheese, the remaining zucchini, a fine sprinkling of sea salt, the remaining blossoms, if using, the remaining tomato sauce and the remaining cheese.

Place the dish in the center of the oven and bake until the gratin is bubbling and crisp, 20 to 25 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature.


Tomato Sauce (makes 3 cups)

4 Tbs. extra-virgin olive oil
1 small onion, peeled and sliced
2 plump, fresh cloves garlic, peeled and minced
sea salt to taste
Two 28-oz. cans peeled tomatoes in their juice
1 bouquet garni: several sprigs of fresh parsley, several bay leaves, and several celery leaves, tied in a bundle with cotton string

In a large skillet, heat the oil, onions, garlic, and salt over moderate heat. Cook just until the onions are soft and translucent, 3 to 4 minutes. Place a food mill over the skillet and puree the tomatoes directly into the pan. Add the bouquet garni and stir to blend. Simmer, uncovered, until the sauce is thickened, about 15 minutes. Taste for seasoning. Remove and discard the bouquet garni. The sauce may be used immediately, stored in the refrigerator for up to 2 days, or frozen for up to 3 months.

Polenta of the gods


To spare you another dissertation on why I love Patricia Wells’ The Paris Cookbook, I will instead refer you to my first post on the book, and get right to the heart of the matter.  This polenta is sinfully, sinfully delicious.  Why then do I call it “polenta of the gods” rather than “Satan’s cornmeal”?  Because this is a dish I would think is a staple on heaven’s divine menu.  It is laden with rich cheeses and luxuriously melts in your mouth.  The reduced chicken stock, provided you use real, homemade, quality stuff, is the perfect flourish — adding both depth of flavor and visual interest to a side dish that often goes overlooked.

Easy Polenta RJ and I served this with a simple pan-roasted chicken breast and these caramelized shallots and it was all divine.  I can see this as a special occasion side dish (too rich for every day, but quick and easy enough to do on a weeknight for guests) to accompany braised meats, or with a mix grill of sorts.  Just be warned about two things: 1) this is not a light and airy side dish – it is silky smooth but also dense with cheese and 2) use the best ingredients you can find – homemade chicken stock (or really good store-bought) and artisinal cheese such as Abbaye de Bel’loc or good Manchego since this is a simple and straightforward dish, the quality of the parts equal the quality of the whole.

Helene’s “Polenta” with Sheep’s Milk Cheese, from Patricia Wells’ The Paris Cookbook
(Yield 4 servings)

3 2/3 c. Homemade Chicken Stock, or more as needed
3/4 c. corn flour or fine-grain yellow cornmeal
7 oz. French Basque sheep’s milk cheese, freshly grated (2 1/2 cups)
8 oz. mascarpone cheese

Reduce the chicken stock: in a 6-quart saucepan, bring 2 cups of the stock to a boil over high heat. (Make sure you use a large saucepan, to prevent the stock from boiling over.) Boil until the mixture is thick and syrupy, reduced to about 1/2 cup, 10 to 12 minutes. Transfer the liquid to the top of a double boiler, set it over simmering water, cover, and keep warm.

In a large, heavy saucepan, combine the cornmeal and the remaining 1 2/3 cups chicken stock. Stir with a wooden spoon to blend. Cook the mixture over high heat, stirring, until it is thickened and leaves the side of the pan as it is stirred, about 2 minutes. Reduce the heat to low, add both cheeses, and stir to blend. Cook, stirring to melt the cheeses and thoroughly combine the mixture, about 2 minutes more. The mixture should be soft and pourable. (If it is not, thin it out with additional chicken stock.)

Pour the mixture into warmed shallow soup bowls. Drizzle with the reduced chicken stock, and serve.
Polenta plated

Spring Cleaning, Lentil Salad, and the Cookbook Challenge


This past weekend, RJ and I began our Spring Cleaning.  Even though our home is only 2 bedrooms, 1 bath, a kitchen and a big living area, our spring cleaning could not be completed even over the three-day Patriot’s day weekend.  We prefer the marathon method to a sprint 🙂

We began in the basement, piling up old boxes leftover from the mold infestation of 2008 as well as remnants from our first apartment which have never seen the light of day here in our condo.  The pile, unfortunately, is still sitting there, blocking the route to the washing machine, as RJ’s allergies took a violent turn at about 3 pm Saturday.  Sunday we turned to the kitchen, scrubbing down stainless steel appliance fronts (man, those things look dirty in a sunny kitchen!), mopping the floor, and reorganizing the freezer.


Finally, on Monday we decided to tackle the backyard – the last frontier.  While our upstairs neighbor installed a large patio and laid out landscaping in her half of the yard, RJ and I haven’t touched ours but to cart in our new grill.  Armed with a rototiller, however, RJ made easy work of the weeds and wild grass in our backyard (not to mention the peonies…) and we were left with a 22’x16′ plot of dirt, on which we sprinkled grass seed and starter fertilizer.  With the recent rains, we are in good shape for the start of a real lawn!


All this is to say that I think we’ve finally hit springtime in New England – we have 80 degrees in the weekend forecast, a couple of brilliantly cleaned surfaces in our house, and a budding green lawn.  It is that promising feeling of renewal and rejuvenation that April seems to bring every year.


In that spirit, I have decided to try and rethink my cookbook-tackling strategy.  While I have absolutely LOVED the way this blog has encouraged me to experiment with new recipes and open up some of my more dusty cookbooks, I feel that I’m not spreading the wealth enough.  Bon Appetit and Fine Cooking and Ina Garten have all gotten more than their fair share of features here, and I have so many books that I still haven’t picked up (see Exhibit A here)!  Not to mention the fact that I just bought two more that I really shouldn’t have…


So the new plan is to go one book at a time.  Interspersed with my usual random entries, I will post regular installments to the Cookbook Challenge.  I challenge myself to make, inside of a week, 3 recipes from a single book in my collection (different every time).  By this method I will ensure that, going forward, I can say that every cookbook I own has proven itself under fire.  The first victim?  Patricia Wells’ The Paris Cookbook.  This is a good start since although I love this book, I virtually never go to it when I am looking to cook something.  Why?  Because there are no pictures!  Well, no pictures of the food anyway.  Unfortunately, that is quite a turn-off for me, though I do owe this cookbook more than I owe any other cookbook I own.  Each recipe is from a different Paris restaurant, brasserie, bistro or boulangerie.  Three years ago (I can’t believe it has been so long!), when RJ and I were planning our trip to Paris, I used this book to locate new restaurants for us to try.  Of course we also visited some of my old favorites, but the real gem of the trip and the reason that RJ loves Paris and cannot wait to return (a priceless gift from Ms. Wells) was Au Moulin à Vent.  We went there because the cookbook said the frites were to die for, and she did not steer us wrong – we were thoroughly smitten!

Cookbooks and Le Creuset

Though I would love to pass along that recipe to you, I do not dare attempt to recreate those in my own kitchen for two reasons: 1) they could be excellent and thus not compel RJ to take me back to Paris every couple years OR 2) they could be a severe disappointment and possibly make me doubt that they were, in fact, the best fries I’ve ever tasted.  So… instead I bring you another treat from The Paris Cookbook, lentil salad.

Back in September, my friend Caroline asked me to supply her with the recipe of that “incredible lentil thing” I had made for my first spring picnic several years ago.  I couldn’t remember where I had found it, and thus passed along an Ina Garten recipe which was as likely as any other to be the one I used.  However, it was a grave disappointment to Caroline, and I soon realized that it couldn’t be the same one.  The true “incredible lentil thing” is below – I entreat you to make it for your first spring picnic this year, and to thank Patricia Wells for another winner.Lentils

Ambassade d’Auvergne‘s Lentil Salad with Walnut Oil, Recipe #1 from Patricia Wells’ The Paris Cookbook

(Yields 8 servings )

Warm lentil salad - Mise2 Tbs. goose fat or extra virgin olive oil
1 onion, peeled and minced
2 oz. smoked ham, cut into tiny dice (I used Canadian bacon)
3 cups (1 lb.) French Lentils, preferably lentilles du Puy
1 qt. homemade chicken stock (or the best storebought you have)
1 Tbs. dijon mustard
2 Tbs. best-quality red wine vinegar or sherry vinegar
2/3 c. best-quality walnut oil or extra-virgin olive oil (I used almond oil, since I had it, but I would think hazelnut oil or even perhaps pumpkinseed oil would be delicious)
1 shallot, peeled and finely minced
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
4 oz. lean slab bacon, rind removed, cubed (1 cup)
3 Tbs. minced fresh chives

In a large, heavy saucepan, melt the goose fat over medium-high heat.  Add the onion and ham and sweat – cook, covered, over low heat – without coloring until soft and translucent, about 5 minutes.  Transfer the mixture to a small bowl.  Set aside.

Place the lentils in a large fine-mesh sieve and rinse under cold running water.  Transfer them to the same heavy saucepan.  Cover with cold water, and bring to a boil over high heat.  When the water boils, remove the saucepan from the heat.  Transfer teh lentils to a fine mesh sieve and drain over the sink.  Rinse the lentils under cold running water.  Return the lentils to the saucpan, add the chicken stock, and bring just to a boil over high heat.  Reduce the heat to a simmer.  With a slotted spoon, skim off any impurities that rise to the surface.

Once the liquid is clear of impurities, simmer gently, uncovered, over low heat until the lentils are cooked yet still firm in the center, about 30 minutes (the cooking time will vary according to the freshness of the lentils: the fresher they are, the more quickly they will cook).

Lentil Salad vinaigrette

Meanwhile, prepare the vinaigrette: in a large salad bowl, combine the mustard and vinegar and whisk to blend.  Add the walnut oil and shallots, and whisk again.  Season with sea salt and black pepper to taste.  Set aside.

Place the bacon in a large nonstick skillet and fry over moderate heat until golden brown, 5 to 6 minutes.  Using a slotted spoon, transfer the bacon cubes to a plate covered with a double thickness of paper towels.Lentils & Bacon!

Pour the lentils into a fine-mesh sieve, draining and discarding any remaining liquid.  Transfer them to the salad bowl and toss with vinaigrette until evenly and thoroughly coated. [the cookbook never tells you what to do with the reserved ham and onion you sweated in the first step.  I added mine here — it just felt like the right thing to do…].  Let the lentils sit until they have absorbed the vinaigrette, about 10 minutes.  Sprinkle with the cubed bacon and chives.  Taste for seasoning and serve warm.

I wasn’t going to say anything but… after all the beautiful pictures above were taken, tragedy ensued.  A stray dribble of oil on the side of my salad bowl caused it to slip out of my hands.  Good news?  It fell in the sink.  Bad news? My bowl was expensive and made of glass, so it shattered to bits.  I think it says a lot about how good this salad really is that both my mom and I risked internal injuries to continue eating it out of the wreckage:

Lentil salad from a glass shard

Mother Sauces, Part Deux

The last installment of my mother sauces series was so long ago you probably didn’t guess that this was going to be a series.  However, I use this béchamel base all the time and it seems criminal not to share how easy and useful it is with those who are not already aware.  Again, exact ingredients can vary slightly among the greats, including a particularly complicated version by Escoffier which recommends adding veal bits then straining them out, but the very basic details are straight forward:

White roux

In a saucepan, add 1 part white flour to 1 part melted butter (e.g. 2 Tbs. butter, melted, plus 2 Tbs. flour).  Stir over low heat until combined and thick, about 1 minute [this is called making a roux].  Whisking constantly, add approximately 16 parts milk (i.e. 1 cup milk to every tablespoon of butter) in a slow stream until fully incorporated.  If you like, you can warm up the milk with aromatics before blending with the roux – for example: nutmeg, bay leaf, thyme, or onion.  This will infuse your sauce with a great depth of flavor; just be sure to strain the solids out before mixing the milk with the roux.  Let sauce simmer over very low heat, stirring occasionally, until the sauce coats the back of a spoon (i.e. the sauce doesn’t slip right off of the spoon, and when you drag your finger through it, the trail stays put).

Bechamel thickenedThis has so many incredible applications, including recipes such as:  Cauliflower Gratin, Baked Potatos with Gruyere & Broccoli Sauce, and Wild Mushroom Lasagne.  I have used it too as a base for my creamed spinach (which is really a mornay sauce), and for my macaroni and cheese (though I may be replacing that recipe with this one as my new favorite).

Bechamel squash puree

From the béchamel base you can add cheese to make a cheese sauce, cream to make a cream sauce, or any sturdy vegetable to make a gratin.  I often boil and mash winter squash then stir in a sage-infused béchamel to thin it out a bit and make for a more flavorful puree.  A thin béchamel with lots of garlic aromas (like a Soubise sauce) can make for a killer shrimp pasta or the perfect topping for fresh mushroom ravioli.  Let your imagination be your guide, but do try this to find out how easy and versatile it really is.