I have waited for almost a year to get to eat this gratin again. Waiting, waiting, waiting for it to feel reasonable to purchase some summer squash. Finally I cracked because I just couldn’t wait any longer. I wanted my gratin!
I first had it last summer when I was home visiting my parents. It was my mother who suggested making it, and I thought it sounded fine. Though, how exciting could a summer summer squash gratin really be? Zucchini and cheese struck me as tasty, but in no way revolutionary. Just kind of summery comfort food. (Eep! That was in no way intended to be a dig at comfort food! I love comfort food! But you’ve got to admit, it’s not exciting, per se. That’s kind of the whole point.)
And what was salsa verde, anyway?
When I thought of salsa verde at the time, I thought of Mrs. Renfro’s green tomatillo salsa, the kind I had sometimes used in enchiladas in college, instead of bothering to chop jalapenos. Little did I know I was about to discover one of my favorite summer time flavorings…
This salsa verde is not Mexican at all, but is in fact Italian. It still means simply “green sauce,” but in my mind it has come to mean “wonderful herbal melange of magical flavor imparting madness.”
It tends to be made of a blend of parsley plus perhaps a few other herbs, anchovies, garlic, capers as well as some olive oil and something acidic to pull it all together. When all the chopping and smashing is said and done, the sauce that comes out has that wondrous ability of herb and anchovy blends to make anything it is added to taste bigger, bolder, more flavorful.
Once I’d had it, it quickly became a staple of my summer cooking, perfect for spooning over virtually any cooked (especially grilled) meat or vegetable.
It is the brilliance of Suzanne Goin that thought to add it to a casserole of summer squash and Gruyere. The addition of salsa verde takes the soft nuttiness of Gruyere and the mildness of the squash and gives it this fantastic complexity. Garlicky and fragrant and a tiny bit grassy, and splendidly rich. But not so rich that you don’t want to keep stealing forkful after forkful directly from the baking pan.
The original recipe calls for the addition of brown butter doused breadcrumbs, which almost melt into the rest of the gratin, giving it sturdiness and even more richness. This time around though, I looked in the cupboard and discovered I had no breadcrumbs. And remarkably, we were out of bread ends to crumbify as well.
I recalled a summer squash and rice casserole that we sometimes ate when I was younger though, and decided that maybe rice would make an acceptable (and also gluten free, if that’s a concern!) substitute.
It made for a very different dish, but a scrumptious one nonetheless. I spread cooked rice in the bottom of the pan, piling and spreading the mixture of squash, salsa, and cheese on top.
As the gratin bakes, the cheese melts and bubbles, and the squash releases it moisture. This blends with the herb and garlic infused oils of the salsa verde, and it all collects in the rice, saucing it in the most wonderful way.
I can’t say whether I liked it less or more than the original version. They were different, and I loved them both. But, perhaps this is an excuse to make them again to do a little side by side taste test. And then make them again. And again. As long as the summer squash lasts.
Summer Squash and Rice Gratin with Salsa Verde adapted from Sunday Suppers at Lucques by Suzanne Goin (serves about 4)
Salsa Verde Ingredients:
- 1 teaspoon fresh marjoram or oregano leaves (1/2 teaspoon dried)
- 1/4 cup coarsely chopped mint
- 1 cup coarsely chopped flat-leaf parsley
- 3/4 cups extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 small clove garlic
- 1 anchovy
- 1 tablespoon capers, drained (rinsed if salt-packed)
- 1/2 lemon, for juicing
- Freshly ground black pepper
- a bit over 2 pounds mixed summer squash and zucchini
- 1 1/2 to 2 cups cooked rice
- 3/4 cups sliced shallot
- 1 large garlic clove, minced
- 1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
- 1 heaping cup grated Gruyere cheese
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- The original recipe calls for everything to be carefully blended with a mortar and pestle, but I found it just as tasty and a lot simpler to make it in a small food processor. Begin by pulsing together the herbs, garlic, anchovy, a pinch each of salt and pepper, and some of the olive oil.
- Add the remaining olive oil and capers, and blend until you have a sort of thick paste with small chunks in it. Taste and add salt and lemon juice to taste.
- Preheat your oven to 400F. Thinly slice the summer squash and zucchini, then toss the slices with 1 tsp. of Kosher salt in a large bowl. Leave them to sit for 10 minutes, then drain.
- In another large bowl, mix together the squash and zucchini, the shallots, garlic, thyme, half the cheese, and a generous half cup of the salsa verde. Mix everything together well.
- Thoroughly butter a medium gratin dish. Spread the rice in the bottom of the dish, then spread the squash mixture over the top of it. Sprinkle with the remaining cheese.
- Bake the gratin in the oven for 35-40 minutes, until the squash is tender and the cheese on top is browned and bubbling.