Garden Zucchini au Gratin

Here’s a great dish, that’s particularly well suited to dutch ovens.  You can prepare it in a kitchen, but in the out-of-doors on a cool summer evening . . . well, it can’t be beat.

I first tested this recipe along a river in the Idaho wilderness. Now, I know you’re going to say that testing recipes on a river really isn’t much of test. You are right, of course. On river trips everyone is ravenously hungry, and people will wax euphorically over the most simple of dishes. Even a peanut butter and jelly sandwich can cause a river group to go apoplectic. Nevertheless, this recipe seemed to cause a bit more of its share of lip smacking.

Bolstered with the confidence from that trip, I tried it as a veggie dish for the Pig Out, an annual outdoor fund raiser for the Cooperative Wilderness Handicapped Outdoor Group (C.W. HOG). Folks loved it, and over a decade period, it fed thousands of people who had come out to support the HOGs. For small or large groups, it’s one that I use time and time again. Here’s how it’s made . . .

Cooking Implement:

  • Dutch Size: 12 “

Ingredients:

  • Six to ten (6-10) medium to large zucchinis (This is a great dish to cook in the fall when zucchini is growing like weeds in everyone’s garden. People will be begging you to haul them away).
  • Three (3) large onions. (Do you live in onion growing country?  Western Idaho, Eastern Oregon and Washington, the Imperial Valley of California, Genesee County, New York?  If you do, wait until harvest time in mid September.  Wear your pack and take a bike ride along the country backroads.  All along the sides of the road will be delicious, sweet onions that have spilled out the trucks carrying them off to market. With a bike, it’s easy to stop here and there, picking the best ones and storing them away in your pack.)
  •  Three(3) 8-oz cans of tomato sauce.
  •  A pound and half of cheddar and mozzarella cheese.
  •  Herbs: sweet basil, ground sage and ground oregano, garlic salt

How it’s done:

  • Start with a good batch of charcoal (over 20 coals). You’ll be sautéing and you want the hottest coals possible. I’ve even sometimes supplemented the charcoal with a bit of firewood, split into kindling. The flames from the kindling along with the coals help keep things hot enough throughout the sautéing stage.
  • Once the coals are going, find a hungry person and put them to work slicing up the zucchini and onions and grating the cheese. The zucchini should be slice thin and halved. Large zucchinis should be quartered. The onion is sliced and halved. The cheese is grated into bowls and covered with a napkin to keep any pesky flies and people away.
  •  Sit back, drink a cool drink, and watch the hungry person slice everything up. When they’re finished, thank him or her and send them on their way. Tell them to return in about a half hour. If they ask why, tell them that you are about to prepare a dish of great consequence, a piece of art, and like any artist, you need your space, and a mind uncluttered with the little things.
  •  With your mind now uncluttered, put a little oil in the Dutch and place it on the hot coals. Allow the oil to get hot and then toss in the zucchini. Sauté until soft. If you’re using garden zucchini, you’ll probably end up with a fair amount of water in the Dutch. No problem, just spoon it out. When the water has been removed, add the onion and sauté briefly.
  •  Now is when your genius as a cook comes into play: add the herbs. Add lots of sweet basil (two or three silver-dollar-sized dabs in the palm of your hand. Then lesser amounts of oregano and sage (a couple pinches each), and, depending on your mood and the stage of the moon, a greater or lesser amount of garlic salt.
  •  Dump the cans of tomato sauce in and cover. Simmer and allow the sauce to cook in for at least 10 minutes. Longer if you need to stretch things and want to age the sauce a bit more. While the sauce is cooking, place coals on top of the lid of the Dutch.
  •  When the sauce has cooked to your satisfaction, reduce the number of coals underneath the Dutch so the sauce does not boil or bubble. Carefully spread the cheese on top, blending the two cheeses in pleasing pattern. Put the lid on and pile lots of coals on top. Wait until the cheese on top has melted and ever so slightly browned. Sprinkle just a bit of basil on top for a finishing touch.

It’s all done now and ready to serve. But before the hungry hoards start digging in, take a quiet moment to savor the view.

Then stand back for the stampede.

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