Zucchini Tian

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Finally, our little tiny northern Arizona town has successfully hosted a farmers market. It ain't high class, but it ain't white trash, and it's definitely not wild or crazy ... but it's managed to draw locals and tourists for three solid months now, and there's talk of extending it through October.

I'm excited about that. We're pretty isolated way up here on the AZ/UT border and there is very little farm-to-table going on. This is a great place to start educating folks about how amazing fresh produce tastes when you can source it. I'm hoping next year is even better.

Since every living plant I touch withers and dies a slow, painful death, I do not bring produce to the farmers market - I bring baked goods. The great thing about baked goods is they are excellent bartering tools. I'll trade you these blueberry-lemon buttermilk scones for a bushel of fresh tomatoes, etc. It satisfies my insatiable need to bake, I eat very little of said baked goods (must taste to ensure quality, of course), and I usually bring home amazing produce for healthy meals throughout the week.

Recently I was bequeathed loads of zucchini and a decent amount of fresh 'maters and immediately thought "gratin." As it's just me and the pups (who are religious meat eaters and turn snouts up at fresh veg) it's difficult for me to go through much produce on my own, so I have to cook/can/freeze what I get quickly to avoid waste (no one needs Anthony Bourdain breathing down their neck ...). Gabrielle Hamilton and her Prune Cookbook to the rescue!

This cookbook is one of my favorites - it's a users guide to all of the delicious food she and her staff crank out of Prune in NYC. In the recipes, which are not dumbed down for the home cook, she speaks directly to her kitchen staff and you soon feel you are one of them - you begin to worry if you're being attentive enough to your mise en place, if you're taking the time to cut and slice precisely, and layer and assemble a dish deliberately. To me, the book is a fantastic ride and I feel like I belong in a professional kitchen.

A "tian" refers to both the type vessel the dish is cooked in (usually a large, oval, earthenware dish), as well as the technique. It is made up of chopped or sliced vegetables that have been baked "au gratin" (a dish sprinkled with breadcrumbs or grated cheese, or both, and baked). Gabrielle's tian is baked with breadcrumbs, but does not include cheese or cream, which you sometimes find in baked gratins. I'm not one to turn down a creamy, cheesy gratin, but when you're able to use fresh produce, you really want to capitalize on their flavor by simply seasoning each layer with good olive oil, salt and freshly-cracked black pepper. That's it. There's not a lot to hide behind here, so do this with the fantastic haul you bring home from your farmers market this weekend.

This recipe will feed 10 to 12 people and Gabrielle recommends using a shallow, round or oval enameled casserole (like a Le Creuset). She suggests you avoid using a cast iron pan as it discolors and adds a strong flavor to the dish. If you're like me, you don't have a shallow enameled casserole dish and you used a coated Staub cast iron gratin. If you do end up using cast iron, make sure you coat the pan liberally with olive oil so your potatoes do not stick. A heavy, enameled baking dish will do as well. Use what you have - the key here is to take the time and patience to thinly slice your vegetables (if you don't have a mandolin slicer, now is the time to spring for one) and to just as carefully spend quality time layering them in the dish.

Additionally, try to find small and firm zucchini and summer squashes as they have smaller seeds and tighter pores. Use the ginormous zucchini as a door stop.

Zucchini Tian

From the Prune Cookbook
Serves 10-12

Ingredients

2 large russet potatoes, peeled

1 or 2 red onions, peeled

4 pounds mixed, firm zucchini and summer squashes

2 on-the-vine tomatoes (in winter) or large ripe beefsteaks (in summer)

1/2 cup bread crumbs (if you can, make your own - store-bought tastes like sawdust and we're working with really good veg here, so ... )

3 Tablespoons melted butter

1 1/2 cups (give or take) olive oil

 

Set oven to 375-degrees.

In a heavy, round, low-sided casserole (if you have one) add a few tablespoons of olive oil. 

Thinly slice the potatoes into rounds on mandolin. The slices should be flexible and ribbony, and not so thick as to be rigid.

Arrange the potato slices in neat, fastidious, concentric and just a slightly overlapping shingle pattern around the bottom of the oiled casserole. Season lightly with salt and set in the oven for about 20 minutes, until the potatoes start to bubble and brown at the edges and become translucent.

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Wash the zucchini and squash thoroughly under running water to remove any sand or grit. Take the extra step to dry them with a clean kitchen towel.

Slice onions, zucchini, and summer squash in rounds on the mandolin. Keep the vegetables grouped separately after slicing.

Score an "x" at the bottom of each tomato before blanching in boiling water for less than one minute - just until the skin blisters. Shock the tomatoes in ice water, then peel and set aside.

To build:

In the same neat, fastidious domino (overlapping) pattern, create a layer of zucchini on top of the cooked potato layer. Season with a drizzle of olive oil and some salt and pepper. It's easier and you'll have more control if you use a bottle with a pour spout on it. Lay in a layer of summer squash in the same way, and season equally.

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Continue with a layer of red onion, by loosely scattering rings across the whole dish, overlapping. Season again with olive oil, salt and pepper.

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Repeat layers, in same order - zucchini, squash, onion - seasoning each layer until all the sliced vegetables are used. Occasionally press down to even out the "doming" that happens in center of the dish. 

With a sharp knife, slice the tomatoes into thin rounds without shredding (but don't fall apart if they do - it will still taste fantastic). Make a neat, overlapping shingled layer of tomato on top. 

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Sprinkle generously with breadcrumbs. Melt the butter and drizzle all over the tian before baking.

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Give it 2-3 hours in the oven (check after two to prevent burning) and allow to cool/set for at least half an hour after you take it out. It needs time to "settle."

You know this would be fantastic with topped off with an egg.