I love summer squash, and always have.
When I was a kid, I liked to pick the tiny ones from the garden and eat their creamy, lightly flavored flesh raw. I used to stick them in my pockets to carry on my farm adventures with me, along with a handful of raw green beans, some peas still in the pod, and whatever assortment of interesting rocks or acorns I had found that day. I always tried to keep the geological findings and the snacks in separate pockets, but sometimes I failed. Luckily, I never ate a rock, so all of my teeth are to this day intact.
But I also loved squashes cooked. My Grandma liked to fry large zucchini, and that was always delicious, especially if she used lard or bacon grease for the frying, which she usually did. The little yellow crooknecks and small zucchini she simmered in water, then drained them when they were tender and added butter, salt, pepper and sometimes parmesan cheese. (That cheese comes with a little “p” because it came out of a green can.)
When I was a pre-teen, the lady who lived next door to us taught us a new way to cook zucchini. She stewed it with onions, sweet peppers and tomatoes, and then she’d either eat it right away or put it up in jars using her pressure canner. We took a jar to Grandma, and she took to making stewed zucchini and tomatoes at least once a week in the summer–usually more than that, and she put up row after row of jars of it to be eaten cold or hot in the winter. Grandma’s innovation on that recipe was to add hot banana peppers to the melange, which added just enough zip to make the whole recipe sparkle.
This recipe, while it contains elements of both the simply simmered squash and the stewed squash recipes mentioned above, uses a completely different technique. It is a gratin, so it is baked in a shallow pan (helpfully known as a gratin or gratin pan), with a minimum of liquid so that as the squash cooks and releases its water, the resulting sauce will cook down and become thick, not runny. And, this recipe is gilded by a topping of both finely grated Parmesan cheese and crumbles of an absolutely fabulous locally produced applewood smoked goat cheddar from Integration Acres.
Let me expound for a moment on the cheeses from Integration Acres, because they are really, really good. I’ve been eating their light, creamy and delightfully tangy chevre and cooking with it since they started making it in 2007. It is, quite simply, the best chevre I’ve ever tasted–it is creamy with none of the chalky texture that commercial chevre can often exhibit. The flavor is effervescent–it has the requisite goat milk tang without being overwhelmingly strong–and when it is combined with herbs, garlic or a bit of smoke, the chevre flavor is never lost. The combination of superior creaminess and sweet, tingly goat milk flavor makes for one of my favorite cheeses in the entire world. And I mean that–and believe me, this is high praise, because if I could be asked what single food I could NEVER give up in my life, it would be cheese. (Look, I used to get cheese in my Easter basket instead of chocolate once I was diagnosed with a chocolate allergy–and you know what–I was happier with the cheese!)
But chevre is just the beginning. Now, Michelle of Integration Acres is making a whole array of goat cheeses, including aged cheeses, both soft and hard. The cheese I used in this gratin is a phenomenal smoked goat cheddar called “Chase Cheddar,” after the road where their farm is located. Of all of their cheeses, including the chevre and their feta, which is also superior to any commercial feta I’ve ever had, I think this cheddar is my favorite. I’m a cheddar fanatic, so this is not surprising in the least–I adore a good aged cheddar, and if it is smoked with a delicate hand–in other words, not over-smoked–that makes it all that much better to me. This cheese is crumbly the way a good cheddar is, with an aroma that is equal parts aged cheese and applewood smoke. The flavor is subtle, complex and beguiling and I feel ever so lucky to live in the same community where this cheese is made so I can be assured to always have it around for snacking or cooking.
All of this said–you can use whatever good aged smoked cheddar you like in this gratin, but I implore you not to leave the cheddar out and just go with the Parmesan. The two cheeses combined really make the dish more than just the sum of its parts, and I think the flavors would flatten out if you used just one cheese.
The gratin is put together simply–a thick layer of caramelized onions is spread over the bottom of a well-oiled gratin dish, and is then topped with thinly sliced summer squashes. (Less than 1/4 inch is what I mean by thinly–if you have problems doing this with a knife, try a mandoline, but be wary of the sharp blade! I’m weird–I don’t trust mandolines not to try and hack off my hands, so I can cut paper thin slices with my knives. Your mileage may vary.) I used a yellow zucchini and a pale green zucchini and alternated the colors, but you could easily use all the same squash or even more different ones, or you could use pattypan squashes instead of the cylindrical ones. It’s all up to you. Just be sure and cut them very thinly.
Oh, and when you start putting the slices into the gratin, don’t start along the edges like I did. I forgot that it is much easier to start in the center, about two and a half inches from the center, and make a row that goes straight down, stopping the same distance from the bottom edge, and then spiral outwards from there. Or, you can be like me and start at the edge and spiral inwards, tucking the inner slices under the outer ones. Or you can not be type A about it and lay them atop the outer layers and just get on with it. So, let me amend my statement about not doing it like I did–do it in a way that is aesthetically pleasing but works the way you want it to work and don’t worry so much about how it’s “supposed” to look.
Now, for the liquid.
You could use plain old tomato sauce or puree for the liquid, but I pulled out one of my secret ingredients–an 11 1/2 ounce can (soda size) of V-8 juice. Now, the truth is, if I had a juicer, I’d make my own mixture of vegetable juice to use in recipes such as this, but I don’t. So, instead of a plain tomato product, I used a little over 8 ounces of V-8–just enough to barely cover the squash along the edges of the dish and splash onto the center squashes without quite covering them. This is a measurement that is going to depend on the size of your gratin dish, which is why I give the measurement of 11 1/2 ounces, noting that you can use a little more or less of it. Anyway, I use V-8 because it gives a more complex flavor in the finished dish than plain tomato sauce or juice would, and the texture when it is finished cooking is very velvety and lush.
And then we come to the herbs. Use them fresh and use a lot of them, in whatever types and combinations you want. I used about 1/2 cup of mixed basil, oregano, flat leaf parsley, rosemary, thyme and lovage. They get sprinkled on top after the juice is added, and after two minced fresh garlic cloves are sprinkled on top. Then, the cheeses are sprinkled over–the finely grated Parmesan first, then the roughly grated or crumbled cheddar, and the whole thing is popped into a preheated 375 degree F oven, and baked for about 45 minutes, or until the squash slices are tender, the sauce is cooked down to a thick, deep red velvet, and the herbs and cheeses are browned and a bit crispy.
That’s all there is to it. It really sounds more complicated than it is to make. It would make a great vegetarian dinner paired with a rice pilaf and a mixed greens salad with fresh early summer carrots, radishes and raw turnips with a zippy lemon vinaigrette.
Summer Squash Gratin with Herbs and Smoked Goat Cheddar
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 medium onions
1 teaspoon salt
2 medium sized cylindrical summer squashes, very thinly sliced (less than 1/4″ thick)
11 1/2 ounce can V-8 juice or equivalent amount of homemade vegetable juice, canned tomato sauce or puree
2 fresh garlic cloves, peeled and minced
1/2 cup fresh mixed herbs, roughly chopped
1/2 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese
1/2 cup roughly crumbled or grated aged, smoked goat cheddar (Integration Acres Chase Cheddar if you can get it!)
Preheat your oven to 375 degrees F.
Pour oil into a heavy bottomed skillet or saute pan and heat over medium heat. Add the onions, and sprinkle with the salt. Cook, stirring as needed, until the onions turn a deep golden reddish-brown–this should take about ten to fifteen minutes, depending on how much water and sugar are in your onions.
Oil a gratin or baking dish well with olive oil. Scrape the caramelized onions into the pan and spread them into an even layer.
Carefully layer your squash slices so they overlap slightly in a full layer over the entire gratin dish, covering the onions completely.
Pour the V-8, or tomato sauce or puree over the squash slices, making sure that you have enough liquid to barely cover at the edges and dampen the slices at the center of the dish. Sprinkle with the minced garlic, then the herbs. Sprinkle the Parmesan cheese evenly over the top then do the same with the cheddar.
Put the gratin in the oven and cook uncovered for about 45 to 50 minutes, or until the squash is tender, the liquid has reduced by half and clings to the vegetables, and the cheeses are melted and lightly browned and bubbly. If the cheeses look apt to burn before the squash is done, remove the pan and lightly cover it with a piece of foil, then continue cooking. If you have a convection oven like I do, the cooking will probably only take 35 to 40 minutes.
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