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.”
Whatever 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
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.