Saturday, March 7, 2015

Summertime Zucchini Tomato and Brioche Casserole in the Dead of Winter

It’s the middle of winter and when we get to March, that month that “roars in like a lion and leaves like a lamb,” we're hungering for summertime.  Hopping on a plane and jetting off to find the sun isn’t an option, so instead we open the freezer and pull out a few glass containers of frozen sunshine.

The freezer this year is packed with frozen sunshine thanks to our discovery of the Ten Day Local Food Challenge.  This is a great idea to get people to convert their local food aspirations into practice for a ten-day period.  We discovered the Ten Day Local Food Challenge in October when the local farmers market tables were piled high with juicy tomatoes and monster zucchini, and leafy greens.  We really liked the idea of trying the local food challenge but felt it was too late in the season to prepare for and take on so instead we decided to stock up the freezer with stews, soups, broth, and casseroles that we prepared with heaps of local veggies at the peak of flavor and nutrition.

Without giving it too much thought, these efforts to preserve the best flavors of summer were really only a replication of the age-old practice of storing and preserving foods when they’re in abundance for future consumption when they’re not.  The art of home food preservation is making a comeback and we can see why from our own experience using cooking and freezing as a food preservation technique.

Cooking and freezing are probably the most basic food preservation techniques, so basic that we hardly give them a second thought.  They’re much simpler than pickling, fermenting, and drying but even these simple techniques can produce surprisingly good results.

We’re not big fans of frozen vegetables because they’re often limp and soggy so we had pretty low expectations for preserving the crispness, vibrant color, and distinct flavor of “just cooked” fresh vegetables after a deep winter freeze.  We experimented a bit and found that even our cooked leafy greens like chard that had been quickly steamed and then sautéed with fresh tomato and garlic remained crisp and flavor-fresh even after freezing, defrosting, and reheating.  We think the step that contributed to these results was only freezing after the vegetables were fully cooled.  Dishes that were prepared with uncooked vegetables such as this Zucchini Tomato and Brioche Casserole also produced great results.

There are a number of other benefits to preserving foods at home that don’t relate to taste but are equally important.  Preserving your own food can deepen your connection to good food and can take you on a Proustian reverie back to the languid days of Indian Summer when you filled canvas totes filled with golden and sun drenched vegetables from the farmers market.

Here’s the recipe for Zucchini Tomato & Brioche Casserole:

24 green and yellow Zucchini squash
2 quarts cherry tomatoes
5 yellow onions
12 Eggs
2 cups white wine, Sauvignon Blanc or Chardonnay
2 pounds grated Swiss, Gruyere, or Cheddar cheese
1 loaf of brioche bread
3 tablespoons salt or to taste
2 tablespoons black pepper or to taste
2 tablespoons mustard powder or to taste

Start by pre-heating your oven to 425 F.  Then begin to prep all your ingredients putting them into individual bowls.  This step involves and lot of chopping, egg breaking, and measuring.  This is the most time consuming part of preparing this dish.  As the French cooks say, this is the “mise-en-place” phase. So you might want to pour yourself a glass of wine but be careful as you’ll be doing a lot of chopping.

Wash and quarter each Zucchini and then further cut into one-inch chunks
Peel the onions and then dice into half-inch chunks
Cut the cherry tomatoes into halves
Break the eggs and put in a bowl
Grate the cheese and put in a bowl

Sautee the onions in ½ pound of butter and ½ cup of extra virgin olive oil to a light golden color.  While the onions are sautéing, slice and then cube the loaf of brioche bread into 1-inch cubes.  Spread the bread cubes onto 2 cookie sheets and toast in the oven.  You’ll need to turn the bread cubes several times to ensure that they are evenly brown. This will take about 45 minutes.

While the bread cubes are toasting, beat the eggs with the white wine, salt, pepper, and dry mustard.

Once all of the ingredients have reached room temperature, fold them together in a massive mixing bowl.  I use a stainless steel bowl that is 2 ½ feet in diameter.  Put the toasted bread cubes in the bowl first.  Then add the sautéed onions, the cherry tomato halves, grated cheese, and Zucchini chunks.  Add the egg mixture last and then fold gently until all the ingredients are moist and combined.  If you find that the mixture is too dry, then add a few extra eggs and some white wine that have been beaten together.

The final step before freezing is to spoon the casserole mixture in casserole dishes.  We find it helpful to use casserole dishes of varying sizes and generally include one large casserole, casseroles for two and individual casseroles.   After the casseroles are filled, cover with plastic film or Press ‘n Seal which we prefer and freeze.

Defrost in the refrigerator 2-3 days ahead of when you plan to serve the casserole.  Allow the casserole to reach room temperature and then cook for about 45 minutes in a pre-heated 400 F oven or until the cheese is bubbling.

Serve up a plate of sunshine.  Close your eyes and go to the languid days of Indian Summer even on the darkest and coldest day of winter.

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