Help! I’m drowning, and I have a feeling you may be too. In zucchini that is.
How is it that something so longed for, can quickly turn into too much of a good thing? I happen to love zucchini–its subtlety, its versatility, its special place in the late summer garden and kitchen. What I realize I’m not so keen on, is zucchini unabated for weeks and weeks.
In fact, I was almost relieved the other day when, upon inquiring into the dietary restrictions and disinclinations of our Parisian guests, I was told they all ate everything, with the exception of 10-year old Jacob, who, it turned out, was game to try anything but zucchini, or courgette, as it came out in his lilting French.
I have to say, I felt his pain. By this time in August, I’ve normally had so much of my beloved ratatouille, that a break is in order. I’ve been merrily stuffing and sauteing it, contemplating fritters and the ubiquitous zucchini bread, but no matter what I do, there’s still more and more and more.
Which brings me to this good little recipe that I’d somehow forgotten until the other day. I think, in all honesty. it was a memory born of discombobulation. I had zucchini lying on the countertop, ready to do something with, when I realized I needed to unload the dishwasher before I got started. Somehow, when my big white oval baking dish landed next to the veggies on it’s way into the drawer, the intense memory flooded back.
Seven years ago, during my Mother’s last summer, I was consumed by trying to tickle her appetite. I would cook and cook, trying desperately to entice her to eat, mostly without success. Rice puddings to elaborate tarts, stews to souffles, the parade of foods stretched to encompass every possible permutation from “nursery food” as she dubbed it, to rather complex French feasts. Somehow, nothing ever seemed to be just the thing.
Imagine my surprise one day when I presented this lowly gratin to accompany I-can’t- even-remember-what elaborate thing I’d prepared, and Mother’s eyes positively lit up. I’d done it. I’d stumbled upon the holy grail of something she really and truly wanted to eat.
As that summer wore into fall, and she became increasingly less interested in food, I made this dish many, many times. It was certainly not the most elaborate thing I made, but it was assuredly the most successful, melding a rather subtle, creamy flavor with lashings of love.
Somehow, after she died, I either forgot about it, or blocked it out until the other day when the zucchini was rubbing shoulders with the big casserole dish on my kitchen counter. Needless to say I whipped one up and was transported back to Mom’s last August, and saw in my mind’s eye, the happy twinkle in her eye when she saw it emerge, bubbling and hot from the oven.
So heaven forbid I find fault with zucchini ever again. I have a feeling I’ll be making this particular dish at least once a year from here on out. Not only is it delicious, but so is that lovely memory that I had somehow inadvertently misplaced.
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus extra for topping
3 large yellow onions, cut in half and sliced
2 pounds zucchini, sliced 1/4 inch thick (about 4 zucchini)
1 teaspoon Maldon salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 cup milk
3/4 cup fresh breadcrumbs ( regular breadcrumbs will do in a pinch)
3/4 cup freshly grated Gruyere cheese
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
Melt the butter in a very large saute pan and cook the onions over low heat for 20 minutes, or until tender but not browned. Add the zucchini and cook, covered, for 10 minutes, or until tender. Add the salt, pepper and nutmeg and cook uncovered for 5 more minutes. Stir in the flour and cook, stirring well for about 3 minutes to cook away the raw taste of the flour. Add the milk and cook over low heat for a few minutes until it creates a thick sauce. Poor the mixture into a large oval baking dish.
Combine the bread crumbs and the Gruyere and sprinkle on top of the zucchini mixture. Dot with a couple of tablespoons of butter cut into small bits and bake for 20 minutes or until it is bubbly and browned.
Serve immediately as either a side-dish, or as a main-dish for vegetarians.
–Adapted from “Barefoot in Paris” by Ina Garten