17 August 2009

An Abundance of Cukes and Zukes! Zucchini and Fennel Gratin + Cucumber Collins

Right about now, I'm considering myself an especially lucky gal. My veggie garden consists of only one tomato plant (which has produced two - count 'em) toms to enjoy. But the crisper drawer in the fridge is overflowing with gifts from gardener friends. Green beans. Tiny onions. Fresh carrots. An abundance of cucumbers and zucchini.

This weekend, my dear friend Rebecca added an interesting item to the mix - a heady bulb of fennel. The smell alone was intoxicating, as was the question of what do do with it.

I thumbed through my go-to cooking bible (no, you don't need to call me Julie -- my resources is Joy of Cooking, not MtAoFC as Julie Powell dubs Julia Child's tome) to sort out what to do with this fennel. I'd envisioned something braised or roasted.

On the first page of fennel recipes, something caught my eye -- something that could use multiple veggies that spilled out of the crisper: Zucchini and Fennel Gratin. I scanned through the list of ingredients, and lo and behold, I had everything on-hand. Kismet!

So Monday after I closed the dayjob, I got to work on the food-job. It didn't take long to slice and dice the fennel (cleaning out its sandy layers - akin to the dirt that clings to the layers in leeks). I chopped some onion and set it to work sauteing with the fennel.
One word of warning - the recipe says to cook the fennel & onion mixture at as low heat as possible. My stove was on "low" and the mixture still seemed to brown too fast -- it could be because I had it on medium for the first 7 minutes or it could just be that my electric stovetop doesn't go as low as the recipe's writer intended (perhaps a gas stove would be more precise).

On to the sliced zucchini, paper-thin and sauteed on high for a few minutes to brown. This may be another spot where I went wrong. After the zucchini cooked, I set it aside as the recipe directed. But I filled a cereal-bowl with the warm veggies and let it sit until I needed it a good 60 minutes later; I think I should have waited to cook the zuke until closer to assembly time -- or, at minimum, spread the layers of cooked veggie onto a plate or baking sheet to stop the cooking. It turned a little soggy...

After removing the zucchini, I reused the same pan to cook some freshly chopped tomatoes - a couple borrowed from mom's garden! - with a taste of salt and pepper. I was happy to scoop the fresh tomato sauce atop the gratin at the end; otherwise this would've been a very green dish.

At this point, I realized that a cucumber Collins would complement this side-dish nicely. It is easy-peasy to make, and is yet another item that I must credit to Rebecca! For each drink, simply muddle a handful of cucumber slices (about 5) and add to a standard Tom Collins recipe. Or, if you're like me and don't have everything on hand (ahem, lemons), improvise! I made mine from 2 oz. Sapphire gin, 1/2 oz. simple syrup - always on hand in my fridge and ridiculously simple to make, and a splash of organic lime juice. Shake it up with the muddled cukes and strain into a glass, then top with lemon Perrier and a slice of cucumber for garnish.

As I tasted the fennel-onion mixture in preparation for assembly of the gratin, I realized I wanted it to be a tad sweeter. So I added a splash of vermouth. (Yes, I have vermouth on hand, but no fresh lemons for my drink. Go figure.) That must've been Julia speaking after all.

All in all, the recipe fell flat. The flavors were great, but the textures - not so much. Next time I'd definitely be careful about the cooked zucchini (I'd even suggest broiling it off the bat, rather than sauteing). I'd also add something with a bit more bite to the gratin - something crisp and crunchy, like those crispy canned onions that were so prevalent in the 80s. Fortunately, the Collins turned out just swell, letting me enjoy the feast of veggies if only in liquid form.

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