Vegan Zucchini, Tomato & Onion Gratin

“Do you like zucchini?” my co-worker asked, peeking into my office.

“Of course!” I said.

She put the two globe zucchini she was carrying down on my desk.

“Are these from your mom’s garden?”

“Yes…”

“Oh, they’re still warm!”

“She just picked them.”

“Thank you!”

I had to keep working, of course, but looking at the two of them sitting there, I couldn’t help but think about what to do with them. Later in the afternoon I popped out to her desk.

“How about a zucchini and tomato gratin? How does that sound? It’s pretty standard, but I think it’d still be good.”

“That sounds great. Do you need more?”

“Oh, no. I’ll just make a small one to start. I have a red onion – maybe with some onion too?”

She nodded in agreement. I nodded back.

Since today was Wednesday, I stopped by the farmer’s market to get tomatoes. I grabbed four of an heirloom type called Black Russian and headed home to do the assembly.

Well, the two zucchini and the four tomatoes was enough to make a 9×13 pan worth, and I think I could have spread the vegetables out on a jelly roll pan and done just as well. This may not be a true gratin – no breadcrumbs, no cheese – but the idea is there. If I did this again, I might add a couple cloves of finely minced garlic to the cornmeal mixture.

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Escarole Gratin

I had already washed the escarole from our first CSA box and cut it in quarters. I was searing it in olive oil, one quarter at a time, when Chimp walked into the kitchen.

“Oh man,” he whined in mock exasperation. “Not burned lettuce for dinner again!

“Burned endive, my dear. Escarole is an endive, not a lettuce.”

At our house, escarole most often ends up paired with white beans, olive oil, and lemon juice in a brothy soup. Liquid helps mediate its slight bitterness somewhat. I was in a different sort of mood today, though, and was thinking about how I could execute a gratin mostly in line with the Eat Local Challenge.

I knew I was going to brown one of my onions from K.M.K. Farms and make that part of the topping. I had Dry Jack cheese from Vella Cheese Co. in Sonoma in the fridge, and I knew that would go in. (Three Sisters Serena, from just south of Visalia, about an hour away, would have been much more local, but the wheel on offer at WFM wasn’t in the shape I wanted it to be. As a former cheesemonger, I’m terribly, terribly picky when it comes to the condition of my cheese. That tends to happen when you have 200 cheeses in front of you every day for five years and can eat each one at its peak.)

With the cheese figured, I also had cream, which would help add richness and moisture. Breadcrumbs are the traditional gratin topping, but I wasn’t in the mood for even a small amount of wheat, and there’s certainly nothing local about it.

I pulled a bag of walnuts out of the pantry. Chopped, they would add a crunch like breadcrumbs would, and though I bought these particular walnuts before I started the Challenge, there are plenty grown around here – I even know a couple local walnut growers.

Endive gratins I’ve undertaken a couple times before. I can remember a tomato-and-cheese topped one that I made probably ten years ago now. Escarole works better, though, in my opinion; because the ribs are thinner, it cooks more quickly and evenly.

The real evaluation is this, I suppose: there was none left within an hour of it coming out of the oven.

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Braised Fennel Gratin

I found this recipe online. I went looking for a fennel recipe and found this one authored by chef Brandon Chase Miller of the restaurant Stokes Adobe in Monterey. It was on the Earthbound Farms website, but here’s the restaurant website:

http://www.stokesrestaurant.com

Having been to this restaurant while on business travel during the winter – I had a fried green tomato sandwich that was out of this world, among other well-treated vegetable things – I figured his recipe would be worth a try. I was correct. It is very good, if you don’t mind the multi-step process it requires. I’ve changed one thing for ease of operations – I trimmed the v-notch out of the root after boiling to prevent any coming-apart problems.

This recipe requires you to make seasoned flour – that just means to add a liberal seasoning of salt and pepper to a small pile of flour. It’s the same thing you’d do if you were making fried chicken.

Ingredients:

4 fennel bulbs
1 T. lemon juice
salt and pepper
flour
1/3 cup vegetable oil
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/4 t. nutmeg

Preheat oven to 375°

Add lemon juice to 2 quarts of water and bring to a boil. Salt generously. Cut off fennel stalks and discard. Cut fennel bulbs lengthwise through the root, leaving flat sides. Cook fennel halves until tender (about 6 minutes). Drain. Cut a v-notch out of the root, leaving enough to hold it together. Then season between the layers of the bulbs with salt and pepper. While the fennel is still hot and slightly wet, roll them in seasoned flour. Heat vegetable oil in shallow fry pan over medium to medium-high heat and fry fennel until brown on both sides. Arrange fennel in gratin dish. Pour cream over and sprinkle with nutmeg. Bake for 25 minutes covered, then uncover and bake for 10 more minutes. Serve at once.

Potato, Celeriac, & Spinach Gratin

This follows much the same principle as the mac & cheese I put up back in October. The sauce is really almost entirely the same – you just do it with potatoes instead of pasta. Here is an opportunity to get to know celeriac, if you are not familiar with it, in an easy-to-handle format. I really like celeriac, but it is strong – a whole dish of it alone is usually too much for the uninitiated.

Preheat the oven to 375.

2 c. milk (I use skim or lowfat and it works fine either way)
1/4 yellow onion, peeled, stuck with two cloves and a bay leaf
2.5 lbs baking potatoes, peeled and sliced about a 1/4 in. thick
1 celeriac peeled (cut the ends flat, then set it on your cutting board and cut the skin off using a knife. If you try to use a vegetable peeler on it, you’ll just end up with a mess & a high level of frustration) and halved top to bottom, then cut in 1/4 in. slices

Place the milk, onion, potatoes, and celeriac in a deep saucepan and bring to a gentle simmer. Simmer for 10 minutes, then remove from heat. Remove the potatoes with a slotted spoon and place in an 8×8 or slightly larger casserole dish. Season with salt and pepper. Remove the onion from the milk and reserve, but discard the attached seasonings. Chop the onion into long, thin slivers and set aside.

While the milk is simmering, prepare a roux using:
4 T. butter
4 T. flour
and cook over low heat for 5 minutes, stirring constantly. Set aside and allow to cool.

Combine the warm milk and the cool roux in the large saucepan and place over low heat. Cook together until the milk thickens – do not allow to boil! Additionally, remember that the cheese will bind the sauce further, so don’t over-thicken it.

In the meantime grate:
A total of about 9 oz. of sharp & mild cheeses (Last night I used about 2 oz. of Tillamook cheddar, about 5 oz. of cave-aged Gruyere, and about 2 oz. of Dry Jack. My favorite cheddar to use is Grafton 2 Year, but I always use at least two cheeses, often three. Leftover bits of any other kind of cheese are a fine addition.)

Additionally, cook:
10 oz. frozen cut leaf spinach
in the microwave for five minutes – no need to add water. Remove and place in a sieve; press out as much moisture as possible, (a potato masher works great for this) then chop into fine pieces & season with salt and pepper.

When the sauce has thickened, add the grated cheese and stir occasionally until incorporated. Again, do not allow to boil. Taste for seasoning and add:
the slivered onions
salt and pepper if needed
2 T. Moutarde de Meaux or Dijon mustard, depending on how much you like mustard
1 tsp. paprika
a few chili flakes or cayenne pepper (I do about 1/2 t. cayenne)
the cooked, drained spinach
and stir until combined. Pour over the potatoes in the casserole and mix in gently. Bake for 35-40 minutes or until the top is slightly browned and the dish is bubbling. Makes 4 large servings.

Chard & Potato Casserole

Sometimes I make things that are not successful. My mother always used to say, “If we don’t like it, we never have to make it again.” I liked this well enough, but it wasn’t good enough to merit the amount of *effort* it took. The recipe fits on one page in the cookbook it came from, but it took me two hours to assemble this and then another hour for it to bake, after which the potatoes in it weren’t done (I had *thought* the casserole looked kind of dry, which is why the potatoes didn’t cook), so I added a little water, covered it, and put it back in for another half hour. More water at the beginning might have produced a better result at the end. By the point I got it out of the oven it would have to have been pretty wonderful for me to not mind all the work I had done on it. And it wasn’t that wonderful. So I wouldn’t suggest making this. Just pointing out that even good cooks have failures.

extra virgin olive oil
2 lbs. Swiss chard (I used 1 lb. chard, 1 lb. kale, and the beet greens from one bunch of beets)
4 large scallions, including greens, chopped
2 large onions, peeled, halved, and sliced thin
3 garlic cloves, minced
salt and freshly ground black pepper
8 large potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/4 in. rounds
2 t. dried oregano
1 c. chopped fresh parsley
1 1/2 c. chopped, peeled, drained plum tomatoes

1. Heat 2 T. olive oil in a large heavy skillet and wilt the chard, in batches, until it is reduced in volume by about half. Remove and drain in a colander. When all the chard is wilted, add 2 more T. olive oil to the skillet and sauté the scallions, onions, and garlic over medium-low heat until soft and translucent. Remove and toss with the greens in a large bowl. Season with salt and pepper.

2. Add 2-3 more T. olive oil to the skillet and sauté the potatoes until translucent and lightly golden. Remove.

3. Lightly oil a 10 or 12 in round by 3 in. deep baking pan, preferably earthenware. Preheat oven to 375. Spread a third of the potatoes on the bottom in one layer. Sprinkle with salt, pepper, oregano, and parsley and spoon 1/2 c. of the tomatoes over them. Spread half the Swiss chard mixture on top. Repeat with remaining ingredients, finishing with a layer of potatoes and tomatoes. Press the mixture down a little with a large spoon. Bake, uncovered, for 1 to 1 1/2 hours, until the potatoes are golden and very tender and until most of the liquid from the greens has been absorbed. Remove, cool for 30 minutes or more, and serve.

Cathy’s Carrot-Onion Casserole

Like crack, this casserole. My aunt Cathy makes this, obviously, but unfortunately, I don’t know anything about the history of the recipe off the top of my head. The Stewarts descend on a dish of this every holiday and just destroy it. Like my mom’s pies, Joe’s ziti, and my massive pile of mashed potatoes, a holiday imperative. Now *you* can make it at home.

Serves 8

4 c. sliced raw onions
2 c. slivered carrots
Cook separately in boiling salted water and drain well.

Buttered white bread crumbs (Cathy makes them crouton-sized)

White sauce

1/4 lb butter
5 T flour
2 c. milk
salt and pepper

Melt butter and blend in flour. Add milk slowly then add salt and pepper to taste. You don’t need to cook the sauce until it thickens & loses its floury taste – that will happen in the oven.

Put half onions and carrots in casserole and cover with half of bread crumbs; add remaining onions, carrots and white sauce. Cover all with buttered bread crumbs. Bake in oven at 350 for about 45 minutes.

Onion Gratin

Oh well. This wasn’t a terrific success. It was okay, but not anywhere as tasty as I expected based on the ingredients & other things like this I’ve had. It also came out a bit soupy when it came out of the oven. I’m going to put this up anyway, but as soon as I get a chance to get the recipe for my Aunt Cathy’s carrot-onion casserole, I’ll put that up & you can make that instead.

Preheat the oven to 375.

6 large onions, peeled and left whole
2 bay leaves
7 shallots, minced
butter for the dish & crumbs
salt, pepper, nutmeg
5-6 T. heavy cream
2 slices bread, crumbed (a mini food processor is helpful here)

Boil the onions in salted water with the bay leaves for 20 minutes. Remove gently and let cool. Slice horizontally in about ¼ in. slices – the easiest way to accomplish this is to set the onion on its base and cut it horizontally with a serrated knife, turning the onion slightly as you do in order to slice it all the way through and keep it in one piece. Butter a good-sized gratin dish (mine’s about 10 x 10) and place one layer of onion slices in the base of the dish. Season them with salt, pepper, and nutmeg & spread about 1/3 of the shallots over them. Repeat the layers until the onions and shallots are used up, seasoning as you go. Pour the cream over. Place in the oven and bake for 40 minutes.

Toss the breadcrumbs with a little salt and pepper and about a T. of melted butter. After 40 minutes, sprinkle the crumbs over the top of the gratin and place the casserole back in the oven for another 20 minutes. Serve hot.