Ciao'd while watching ESPN College Football Preview. Autumn is looming.
Back by popular demand while I continue my summer sojourn. See you in September amici!
Every woman has that friend. The one we regard with wonderment – and gratitude. Three kids, loving husband, business owner (Fashion. Of Course. You can check it out here), football booster club president, great cook (who finds time to cook), thin, gorgeous, funny, thoughtful, always there for her friends. I'm guessing she doesn't wear Spanx. This girl has got it going on. And I love her for it.
So when Lynn, my Italian paisana, texted a culinary “Mayday" along with photos of her copious tomatoes (see image above), I sat up and read it. "I know you already posted about tomatoes, but I am sure you know that anyone with tomatoes has tons of them right now. Maybe another tomato recipe?" Dun dun dun dun. Under the guise of "helping" friends and readers, my practically perfect in every way friend was asking me – I like to think begging me – for a recipe to showcase her burgeoning crop of tomatoes. I am laugh-crying. She has already made sauces, salads, soups, salsas, tarts. 100 TIMES OVER. But friends don’t let friends cook funk.
I thought about those tomatoes, and then I had a dream. I was a tomato and Lynn was a zucchini squash. I know that sounds creepy. But consider this:
If tomatoes and zucchini were to meet at culinary carpool, they would be friends for life. Ying to the Yang. Tomatoes are red and plump and juicy with a heady sweetness haloed by a faint layer of acid. Zucchini are green and slender and compact, with a subtle herbal flavor. I can hear the conversation, for I have had it many times, in the human, not vegetable, way. “Zucca, how do you stay so thin, yet curvy, too? I can't resist pasta and a good burrata. Plus, I am quick to throw (night) shade.” “Tomato, it may just be my genus but I do use a leaf canopy to protect my skin from the sun, and I try to stay true to my anti-inflammatory nature. Still, you know how I can run wild.”
Clearly, I’m the tomato. Whatever the (cooking) situation – raw, sauced, sautéed – tomatoes make sure they’re flavor forward, sometimes more vigorously than others (read: throwing shade). Put them in a comprised situation – a bowl too crowded, a windowsill too sunny - and they melt down. Tomatoes aren't necessarily fragile, but they're not cool as a zuke, either.
Zucchini are casual but refined. A bit shy when raw. “Hey, it’s me under this lemon juice and basil.” More lively when sautéed. “Let’s call garlic and drizzle ourselves with balsamic.” And they can be quite sweet. “Walnuts, why don’t you join me in this loaf?”
On their own, tomatoes and zucchini are appealing but together they sing, especially when baked. Not in the Mary Jane way (though we’ve been known to invite her to parties) but in the oven-blessed convocation that elicits and melds the best of their qualities. Just like old friends.
So, Lynn, this one’s for you. Italian Tomato and Zucchini Gratin. And, yep, I have to say it: “Tomato, tomahto, let’s bake the whole thing off.”
ITALIAN TOMATO ZUCCHINI GRATIN
A wonderful combination of summer vegetables, enlivened by the heat of the oven, this gratin makes a lovely accompaniment to grilled or roasted meats. It holds its own as a vegetarian main course, too. I drain and saute the tomatoes before baking in order to reduce some of the juices but you may find that some juice remains. No problem. Simply use a slotted spoon to serve.
5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, plus more for greasing
6 ripe but firm medium tomatoes, cored and cut into ¼-inch slices
1 medium red onion, thinly sliced
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 ½ cups grated Fontina cheese
1 tablespoon chopped fresh oregano
1 tablespoon chopped fresh basil
Dash of red pepper flakes (optional)
2 medium zucchini, cut into ¼-inch slices
1/2 cup dry breadcrumbs
1/4 cup grated Parmesan
Preheat oven to 400°F. Lightly brush a medium-sized gratin pan or an 8x8-inch baking dish with olive oil. Place the tomato slices on a paper towel-lined plate to let them drain.
In a large skillet over medium heat, warm 2 tablespoons of the olive oil. Add the onion and sauté until soft and beginning to brown, about 10 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Transfer the onions to the baking dish, spreading them evenly over the bottom.
Return the skillet to the stovetop. Heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil over low heat. Add tomatoes to the skillet and cook, turning once, until the liquid has evaporated, about 8 to 9 minutes. Do not let the tomatoes disintegrate. Remove from heat, leaving the tomatoes in the skillet.
In a medium bowl, mix the Fontina, oregano, basil, and red pepper, if using.
Arrange half the zucchini slices on top of the onions in the pan, overlapping them slightly. Sprinkle one-third of the cheese mixture over the zucchini slices. Arrange half the tomato slices on the cheese mixture, overlapping them slightly. Sprinkle with another one-third of the cheese. Repeat layers, ending with the cheese. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.
In a small bowl, combine the breadcrumbs, Parmesan, and the remaining olive oil. Spread the breadcrumbs over the vegetables. Press down gently.
Bake until the topping is golden brown and vegetables are tender, and the juices bubble and reduce, about 45 minutes. (If the topping becomes too brown, cover loosely with foil.) Let cool slightly before serving.