Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Julia Child's Tian de Courgette au Riz, simplified

This summer was our first summer in the city house- the first summer I did not have a garden. I must say I was ok not having to worry about watering, weeding and pests, but I really missed being able to step out into the backyard to grab some fresh veggies or herbs to create a lovely summer dish. Homegrown Iowa tomatoes- I might have missed them the most, but I really missed the abundance of zucchini that most midwest gardeners find themselves trying to use up or give away. This summer, every time I found a zucchini recipe that I wanted to make, I had to buy them. Silliness.....

Also in the city house I have a little book nook all to myself- a comfy chair near big sunny windows and shelves filled from floor to ceiling with hundreds of cookbooks. I spent a lot of time over the cold and snowy months in that room reacquainting myself with books that had been packed away for the few years we lived at the lake. Cookbooks written by celebrity chefs, local church groups and the classics- The Joy of Cooking, Better Homes and Gardens, and of course, Julia's masterpiece, The Art of French Cooking. Within these beloved books I find loads of memories and an abundance of inspiration, especially with Julia Child's recipes. Don't worry- I am not going to revive the Julie and Julia experience- I'm not THAT crazy nor can I afford to buy many of those ingredients, but I do plan on making some of the recipes that best suit me, my tastes, and my budget.

Which brings me back to the zucchini. When I first came across this recipe I fully expected to have people throwing zucchini at me left and right by the time summer got here. Imagine my disappointment when that was not the case! Being in the city, however, means I have access to some of the best farmers markets in the country, like our Downtown Des Moines Farmers Market, which is legendary, to smaller markets in nearly all of the suburbs, and many awesome HUGE grocery stores with every type of produce imaginable. I had to buy it, but that's ok. I really wanted to make this dish, Tian de Courgette au Riz. In spite of it's pretentious-sounding name, it's actually quite a humble little casserole. Simple ingredients and familiar flavors were something that really appealed to me. Julia's technique, however, was not. It was time to reinvent the wheel for sure. I've been cooking rice for decades, and making all kinds of dishes that start with uncooked rice and transform in the oven to something tender and fluffy- I knew I'd be able to figure this one out as well.

Julia almost certainly stood at her elevated kitchen counter and shredded that zucchini by hand, but I wasn't about to go that route, not with a perfectly good food processor on my counter. Shredding the zucchini took just a few minutes, and the rest of the dish is a snap. We'll go through how I made it, and then we'll look at Julia's original, and very meticulous, version for fun. For example, Julia spent a considerable amount of time prepping the zucchini even after shredding. She shreds, salts, squeezes, tastes, saves the spent juice, sautes, parboils, thicken, folds and finally, bakes. While her technique is masterful and creates this incredibly delicious dish, it's a lot of steps, too many for busy cooks these days. The biggest change is not salting and draining the zucchini. Besides the mess, the juice the zucchini gives off will help cook the rice without adding a lot of extra liquid- it just seems silly to drain off liquid just to add it back, am I right?

The Modern Zucchini and Rice Gratin

2 lb zucchini
1/2 cup uncooked rice
1 medium onion, diced
2-3 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 cup half and half
1 cup Parmesan cheese, divided
salt and pepper
1-2 teaspoons minced fresh thyme

Heat the oven to 325 degrees. Butter a 2 quart casserole dish generously and set aside.

Wash the zucchini and trim the ends. Shred the zucchini into a large bowl and set aside.

In a large skillet (I used a wok- seriously, and it worked fabulously) melt 2 tablespoons butter. When butter is foaming and hot, add the minced onion. Season with salt and pepper and cook over medium low heat until softened and just beginning to brown, stirring occasionally. Add the minced garlic and cook another minute.

Add the rice to the skillet and cook for a minute or two until the grains turn bright white. Remove from heat. Stir in the half and half, the thyme, the zucchini and half the Parmesan cheese. Taste and season with salt and pepper to taste. Spoon mixture into buttered casserole dish. Cover tightly with foil and bake one hour.

Increase the oven temperature to 425 degrees. Remove the foil, drizzle with a couple tablespoons of melted butter and sprinkle with remaining cheese. Bake, uncovered, until the top is browned and the rice is tender, about 15-20 more minutes.

This dish is a lovely summer side dish and is perfect for a light vegetarian lunch option. It has all the richness of Julia's classic recipe with a lot fewer steps. Just for fun, let's take a look at the original recipe from Julia Child's Mastering the Art of  French Cooking, Volume II.

Tian de Courgette au Riz

2 1/2 lb zucchini
1/2 cup plain, raw, untreated white rice
1 cup minced onions
3 to 4 tablespoons olive oil
2 large cloves garlic, mashed or finely minced
2 tablespoons flour
about 2 1/2 cups warm liquid- zucchini juices plus milk, heated in a pan (watch closely so this doesn't curdle)
2/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese (reserve 2 tb for later)
salt and pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil
heavily buttered 6 to 8 cup flameproof baking and serving dish, about 1 1/2 inches deep

Shave the stem and tip off each zucchini, scrub the vegetable thoroughly but not harshly with a brush under cold running water to remove any clinging sand or dirt. If vegetables are large, halve or quarter them.If seeds are large and at all tough, and surrounding flesh is coarse rather than moist and crisp, which is more often the case with yellow squashes and striped green cocozelles than with zucchini, cut out and discard the cores.

Rub the squash against the coarse side of a grater, and place grated flesh in a colander set over a bowl. For each pound (2 cups) of grated squash, toss with 1 teaspoon of salt, mixing thoroughly. Let the squash drain 3 or 4 minutes, or until you are ready to proceed.

Just before cooking, squeeze a handful dry and taste. If by chance the squash is too salty, rinse in a large bowl of cold water, taste again; rinse and drain again if necessary. Then squeeze gently by handfuls, letting juices run back into bowl. Dry on paper towels. Zucchini will not be fluffy; it is still dampish, but the excess liquid is out. The pale green, slightly saline juice drained and squeezed out of the zucchini has a certain faint flavor that can find its uses in vegetable soups, canned soups, or vegetable sauces.

White the shredded zucchini is draining, drop the rice into boiling salted water, bring rapidly back to the boil, and boil exactly 5 minutes; drain and set aside.

In a large frying pan, cook the onions slowly in the oil for 8 to 10 minutes until tender and translucent. Raise heat slightly and stir several minutes until very lightly browned. Stir in the grated zucchini and garlic. Toss and turn for 5 to 6 minutes until zucchini is almost tender.

Sprinkle in the flour, stir over moderate heat for two minutes and remove from heat. Gradually stir in the 2 1/2 cups warm liquid. Make sure the flour is well blended and smooth. Return over moderately high heat and bring to the simmer, stirring. Remove from heat again, stir in the blanched rice and all but 2 tablespoons of the cheese. Taste very carefully for seasoning. Turn into buttered baking dish. Strew remaining cheese on top, and dribble the olive oil over the cheese.

About a half hour before serving, bring to simmer on top of stove (you can skip this step if your baking dish isn't flameproof), then set in the upper third of a preheated 425 degree oven until tian is bubbling and top has browned nicely. The rice should absorb all the liquid.

Shew!! I am TIRED just reading all that, not to mention the lengthy and repetitive cooking and heating. In my version, the hour in the oven, covered, is all it takes to cook the zucchini to the perfect tenderness without being mushy. The rice absorbs the liquid the squash will give off during baking, without the hassle of squeezing it out, heating and adding it back. Half and half along with the butter gives it that signature Julia Child richness and the slightly larger amount of Parmesan makes it hearty. The heavier sprinkle of cheese on top of the dish also gives the dish a beautiful crusty, salty crust. Serve this with roast chicken or pork and get ready for rave reviews.

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