- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 2, 2006

Most of my friends are social creatures (just like my spouse and me) and love to entertain. However, when it’s so hot outside that cooking an entire meal seems more like hard labor than pleasure, my fellow cooks and I often opt for preparing a meal together, rather than solo.

We choose a menu, then each pick a course to make. I love this idea because it means that I can concentrate on a single special dish.

For such a meal, I recently suggested that we begin with a chilled soup, followed by a grilled, butterflied leg of lamb plus sides, and a fruit tart for dessert.

I knew exactly what I would volunteer to make — a delectable zucchini and tomato gratin. I had been working on this recipe for a week, and finally, after several tries, had arrived at a winning combination of seasonings for these two omnipresent summer vegetables.

The gratin is composed of two layers of sauteed zucchini slices seasoned with crushed rosemary with a single layer of sliced tomatoes tucked in between. These vegetables are topped with a mixture of fresh bread crumbs and grated Parmesan cheese, then dotted with bits of feta cheese. When baked, the zucchini and tomatoes soften and meld into each other, while the crust becomes golden and crisp.

For those who love to make dishes in advance, this gratin is a dream. It can be assembled and baked early in the day, then reheated when needed. No reason, then, for you to have to deal with any last-minute anxieties.

Try to enlist your friends in some joint cooking and entertaining this summer. It’s a lot less stressful than overseeing an entire menu.

For a memorable side dish, include this gratin. In addition to being a fine garnish to lamb, it would make a tempting accompaniment to grilled chicken or grilled fish such as halibut or bass.

Summertime zucchini and tomato gratin

The gratin can be prepared 6 hours ahead; cool, then cover loosely with foil. Either refrigerate or leave at cool room temperature.

About 1/2 cup olive oil, divided

2 pounds (about 5 to 6 medium) zucchini

1 pound tomatoes

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 teaspoons dried crushed rosemary leaves, divided

6 tablespoons fresh bread crumbs, preferably made from a baguette or peasant bread without crusts (see note)

6 tablespoons grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

1/3 cup crumbled feta

2 tablespoons pine nuts, optional

Fresh rosemary sprigs for garnish, optional

Arrange a rack at center position and preheat oven to 425 degrees. Oil a large (2- to 2-quart) baking dish with some of the olive oil. Trim and discard ends from the zucchini, and cut them into 1/4-inch-thick slices. Stem tomatoes and cut them into 1/4-inch-thick slices.

Set 2 large skillets over medium heat and add about 2 tablespoons oil (or enough to coat the bottoms of the pans) to each. When hot, add enough zucchini slices to each pan to fit snugly in a single layer.

Cook, turning several times, until slices are well browned on both sides and very tender when pierced with a knife, about 8 minutes. Remove and drain on paper towels. Repeat with remaining zucchini, adding more oil, if needed, to pans.

Arrange half the zucchini slices, slightly overlapping, in the oiled baking dish; salt and pepper them, then sprinkle with teaspoon of the rosemary. Arrange tomato slices, slightly overlapping, over the zucchini. Season tomatoes with salt, pepper and 1 teaspoon rosemary. Make a final layer with remaining zucchini and season them with salt, pepper and remaining teaspoon rosemary.

For the topping, combine bread crumbs and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese in a bowl and spread over the vegetables. Dot with feta, and if you like, sprinkle with pine nuts. Drizzle gratin with 1 tablespoon of olive oil. Bake until vegetables are tender and topping is golden and crisp, about 20 minutes. Cool gratin 10 minutes before serving. Garnish the gratin with some fresh rosemary sprigs, if desired. Makes 4 large or 6 smaller servings.

Note: To make fresh bread crumbs from a baguette or peasant loaf, remove the crusts. Then cut bread into large chunks and place in a food processor or blender. Process several seconds or longer until coarse bread crumbs are formed.


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