YUMMY SUM­MER VEG­GIE GRATIN

Wa­ter is the en­emy of your gratin, and cook­ing method must be ap­proached ruth­lessly

The Hamilton Spectator - - GO - JU­LIA MOSKIN

A gratin of sum­mer veg­eta­bles should be the eas­i­est thing in the world to make in Au­gust: a no-recipe breeze for the care­free sum­mer cook.

Slice up squash, toma­toes, etc.; ar­range at­trac­tively; bake.

But this sunny, soap-com­mer­cial method has never worked for me. My gratins are of­ten swamped with tomato wa­ter, filled with slices of raw onions and over­cooked zuc­chini, and topped with a pale, dusty desert of bread crumbs.

This sum­mer, I set out to solve all of the prob­lems, feel­ing my way to a not-soggy, crisp-topped, sat­is­fy­ing gratin.

When zuc­chini and toma­toes are plen­ti­ful (read: over­whelm­ing), it is tempt­ing to pile lots and lots of them into a gratin. But part of what makes these sum­mer veg­eta­bles fresh and de­li­cious is that they are full of wa­ter. That wa­ter is the en­emy of your gratin, and must be ap­proached ruth­lessly. (Win­ter veg­eta­bles, like pota­toes, pump­kins and parsnips, have less wa­ter and more starch, and make beau­ti­ful gratins.)

The sim­plest way to get rid of wa­ter is to ap­ply heat. And so it’s a good idea to cook some or all of the in­gre­di­ents be­fore they ever see the in­side of the bak­ing dish. Cook­ing is the most ef­fi­cient way to evap­o­rate all that wa­ter in veg­eta­bles, and has a side ben­e­fit of con­cen­trat­ing their flavours.

For­tu­nately, the cook­ing can hap­pen any way you like. You can sauté or broil or grill the veg­eta­bles. In fact, you can cook some of them and leave oth­ers raw; for ex­am­ple, as in the recipe here, if you cook the toma­toes, you can leave the squash alone. Since the casse­role is baked un­cov­ered and at a high tem­per­a­ture, wa­ter will also evap­o­rate in the oven.

Here are some uni­ver­sal tips for achiev­ing a crusty, caramelized gratin:

Do not crowd the pan. It is tempt­ing to jum­ble three pounds of raw zuc­chini and toma­toes into a bak­ing dish, but that way lies sog­gi­ness. The veg­eta­bles should over­lap, but not as closely as fish scales. They should look more like roof shin­gles, with plenty of ex­po­sure to air. If you are de­ter­mined to bake a large quan­tity, use two pans, or cook all the veg­eta­bles first.

A bak­ing dish is pretty, but a heavy heathug­ging skil­let is bet­ter at cook­ing the veg­eta­bles from be­low.

Any un­cooked in­gre­di­ents should be slicked with oil be­fore ar­riv­ing in the oven. Oil con­ducts heat and will pre­vent the slices from stick­ing to­gether, al­low­ing hot air to cir­cu­late.

Never cover a gratin con­tain­ing raw veg­eta­bles while bak­ing. This cre­ates a steam bath in­side the dish.

Provence is the nat­u­ral habi­tat of the sum­mer veg­etable gratin (or, as it is called there, a tian), so for fur­ther im­prove­ments I went to the source. In her clas­sic 1976 cook­book “The Cui­sine of the Sun,” about the cook­ing of the French Riviera, the au­thor (and Nice na­tive) Mireille John­ston wrote that toma­toes that are to be baked should be cooked be­fore go­ing into the oven.

Fry them gen­tly un­til “all their ex­cess wa­ter is cooked away and they look trans­par­ent — like can­died fruit,” she wrote. “In Provence, they say that they must look like a vi­t­rail — a stained-glass win­dow.” And in­deed, they do. (A more time-sav­ing way to in­cor­po­rate tomato flavour in a gratin is to use a thick tomato sauce to coat the bot­tom of the pan.)

Tra­di­tional Provençal tians are topped not with cheese but with bread crumbs. But bread crumbs are not al­ways the dry, mi­cro­scopic shards fa­mil­iar to us from card­board tubes.

“They are a ter­ri­bly mis­un­der­stood in­gre­di­ent,” said Jane Sigal, a writer who worked in Provence in the 1980s as a kitchen as­sis­tant to Ju­lia Child’s coau­thor (and some­time fren­emy) Si­mone Beck.

Al­though the dis­tinc­tion has mostly been lost in tra­di­tional cook­ing, she said, there are two dis­tinct kinds of bread crumbs: dry and soft.

Dry bread crumbs are the fa­mil­iar sandy style made from stale bread, and are good for coat­ing food that’s to be fried. (Panko crumbs, made from Ja­panese-style white bread, are even bet­ter.)

But fresh bread crumbs are semi-soft bits of fluff, rang­ing in size from a ker­nel of pop­corn to a fully popped piece. They have taste and a bit of chew, are made from bread that is no more than one day old, and are pre­cisely what you want for a bread crumb top­ping. Dry bread crumbs will never bake into a real crust, but fresh bread crumbs will — as long as richer in­gre­di­ents are added with a gen­er­ous hand.

“If there’s one thing peo­ple can do to im­prove their crusts, it’s to add olive oil,” Sigal said.

The bread crumbs should be thor­oughly moist, with an oily sheen. Cheese is op­tional but helps the crust form. For ex­tra frills and flavours, you might add minced gar­lic and pars­ley to the bread crumbs, pro­duc­ing the clas­sic Provençal top­ping for baked toma­toes.

PHO­TOS BY MELINA HAM­MER, NYT

Sum­mer veg­etable gratin with squash and zuc­chini slices atop a base of onion and bell pep­per, which can op­tion­ally be topped with a layer of toma­toes, cheese and bread crumbs, as shown be­low. There are some tricks, how­ever, to get­ting it right and avoid­ing a mushy mess.

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