The Warmth of the Sun

SeasonalLocalOrganicHeirloom. Now is the time of year to reclaim these words… to rebuild the neural pathways that connect them to real food, rather than Big Food’s cynical, available-year-round imitations.

This is the best thing I can offer you in mid-August: a warm, light, gentle, delicious alchemy of things that, for most of the year, probably shouldn’t attract more than a passing sneer as you wheel your cart through the produce section (but which, in reality, get paid for and carted home with only a vague sense of unease).

Go to a farmer’s market (or your garden, if it has any of the following produce). Procure a half-dozen smallish yellow and/or green zucchini/squash. A couple of pounds of light purple eggplant. Some fresh bulb onions. A few improbably large, heavy, richly juicy tomatoes.

Pre-heat your oven to 350’F. Put on some good music (Endless Summer?), pour yourself a glass of crisp white wine, and slowly consume both of those things. As you do so, coarsely chop about 2.5C of the onions, and sweat them over medium heat with a little olive oil, a generous pinch of sea salt and 2 cloves of grated garlic, until they’re mellow and starting to break down. Spread this onto the bottom of that shallow, wide porcelain or enamel baking dish you have up in the top cupboard. Chop about a tablespoon of fresh thyme, and scatter that atop the onions.

Slice the other vegetables into 1/4-inch discs, and start layering:

The careful placement of the veggies won’t show when the dish is plated, but that very fact brings out the Zen gardener in me.

Brush a slick of olive oil atop each layer of vegetables, and sprinkle them generously with a 50/50 mix of panko crumbs and parmesan (I used a Parmigiano / Pecorino blend) with a little chopped thyme.

Got lots of squash? Do a double layer.

I swear I’m not messing with the saturation on my tomato pics – look at the red pepper for reference – my camera doesn’t seem to know what to do with otherworldly, mid-August tomatoes. These are “Clear Pink” tomatoes from our back yard garden.

I sort of regret not taking a pic of the whole eggplant, which – as my farmers’ market shopping buddies will attest – was the length and girth of a grown man’s upper arm. Evidently, I have deep-seated shame issues.

One more layer of squash…

A final layer of tomatoes…

A final sprinkling of cheesy breadcrumbs, and into the oven. Keller (yes, this is an adaptation of his Summer Vegetable Gratin recipe from Ad Hoc at Home) says this will take between 1 and 1/5 hours… it took more like 3 hours until our eggplant finally gave up the ghost and became yielding to the tines of a fork.

I added an outer ring of tomatoes and some more crumbs around the 2-hour mark.

This is best at room temp, several hours after cooking, or – after refrigerating it – for lunch the next day. I had it today with plain quinoa, and it kept me going for the whole work day.

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