They’re baaaaack. I mean zucchini, of course. Popping up in farmers’ markets, CSA boxes and neighbors’ yards, in sizes from fingerling to baseball bat. And even though I get zucchini all year long at the grocery store, the summer harvest seems to deserve more than just a toss in a pan for side dish status. Ever since I learned about vegetable gratins from the cookbook Greene on Greens, by the late great Bert Greene, that’s how I treat zucchini in summer. It’s really a matter of dragging out stuff you probably already have in the kitchen: some cheese, some breadcrumbs, some herbs, some milk.
Milk? Yes, milk. I discovered that if I moisten the topping with milk instead of oil, it’s less greasy and more crunchy because the sugar in the milk caramelizes along with the cheese. Speaking of which, I recommend gruyere or Asiago cheese, but I’ve also used cheapo pre-grated cheddar in an emergency and it works fine. The secret is to brown the zucchini first in a pan for extra flavor. Other than that, this a cinch to make and you can serve it for lunch or dinner, even breakfast. Seriously. It’s fantastic with a fried egg.
1 lb medium zucchini
1 clove garlic, peeled
freshly ground pepper
pinch red pepper flakes
1 pound ripe red tomatoes
1 cup soft breadcrumbs (see note)
1 cup shredded Gruyere or Asiago cheese
1 tablespoon minced fresh basil, optional
about 1/2 cup milk (preferably whole milk)
Preheat an oven to 375°F. Place a 2-quart gratin dish or other medium-size baking dish, such as a 7×11-inch glass one, on the counter.
Trim ends off zucchini, cut zucchini in half lengthwise, then slice crosswise into 1/2-inch thick half moons. In a wide frying pan, warm about 1/4 cup of the olive oil over medium-high heat and add the peeled garlic clove. Roll the garlic around in the oil until it starts to sizzle. Add the zucchini and sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste; stir to coat the zucchini with the oil and salt, then shake pan to spread zucchini out in a layer. Let cook until zucchini start to brown on the bottoms, about 6 minutes, then turn them over with a spatula and add the pinch red pepper flakes; stir for about a minute more. Spread the zucchini over the bottom of the baking dish, being sure to drizzle all the oil from the frying pan into the dish. Pick out and discard the garlic clove. Slice the tomatoes thinly and arrange over the zucchini in the baking dish.
In a bowl, stir together the breadcrumbs, cheese and basil (if using) with a fork. Add 1/2 teaspoon salt and several grindings of pepper. Drizzle in the milk, stirring with the fork until blended; if it seems too dry, add a tablespoon or two more milk. Spread mixture over vegetables, then bake until golden brown and bubbly, 40 to 45 minutes. Serve hot, warm or at room temperature.
note: when I don’t have fresh breadcrumbs on hand, I just whirl up a slice or two of white bread in the processor or blender and use that.