During my halcyon youth, my family often took vacations to Canada, usually staying in a cabin on a remote lake in the North Country. It was there, surrounded by pine trees and crisp Northern air, that I fell in love with Potatoes Au Gratin. To me, gratin will always come from a box. It will be thin slices of dried and reconstituted potatoes, coated with a layer of cheese that is a little too orange to be natural and a little too slippery to be real cheese. I recall it fondly.
BUT. Gratin, as I have since learned, is more than a box product. It's a catch-all term - French, of course - used to describe dishes topped with a browned crust. Although I'm told it can be made with seafood and other meats, I usually think of gratin as a dish of thinly sliced vegetables with a breadcrumb topping. A trip to a friend's farm - which was overloaded with garden-fresh squash - was the perfect opportunity to get my slice on. I used a variation on a recipe from the wonderful 101 Cookbooks.
This recipe seems long and involved, but it's not too complicated in reality. Lots of chopping is required, but other than that it's a breeze!
zest of one lemon
3 medium/large summer squash (or zucchini, if you prefer), cut into 1/6th-inch slices
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 pound potatoes, sliced transparently thin
3/4 cup feta cheese, crumbled
1/4 cup fresh oregano leaves
1/4 cup fresh parsley
1 large garlic clove, minced
1/4 teaspoon fine grain sea salt
dash of red pepper flakes
1/2 cup olive oil
1/4 cup unsalted butter
1 1/2 cup fresh whole wheat bread crumbs
Start by slicing the veggies - get them all chopped the rest of the steps will fall into place nicely. For the squash, don't worry too much about making the slices obsessively thin, since it will soften nicely in the oven. The potatoes should be THIN, though. Take your time and cut them as finely as possible, since they are the limiting factor on when the dish has finished cooking. When the veggies are all sliced, toss them into a casserole dish zested with lemon. For best results, do this in a zesty manner. Lightly salt the the squash and potatoes and let them sit until later.
Next up: The sauce. It's a fairly basic oregano-based sauce - chop up the oregano, parsley, and garlic, and toss with some salt and olive oil. If you want a little pep, add in some red pepper flakes for pizazz. If you have a blender/food processor, blitz the sauce for a few seconds to really get it mixed up. When it's done, pour 2/3 of the sauce (saving some for a final topping) over the veggies, dump in the feta cheese, and mix it all together with clean hands. Then chase anyone else in the vicinity around the kitchen with the threat of oily squash hands. Or don't, if you don't like fun.
A quick note: I mixed a bit of the breadcrumbs into the potato/squash mix, per the recipe I was following. In hindsight, though, I wouldn't bother - it didn't add much to the dish and, if anything, detracted from the fresh taste of the vegetables.
Finally, the topping. Heat 1/4 cup (one stick) of butter over medium heat, until it begins to brown. You can go with 3/4 of a stick if you prefer your dishes on the lighter side - it will just make your topping a bit less cohesive. Once the butter has begun to brown, take it off heat and let it sit for a minute or two. Then pour in the breadcrumbs and mix with a spoon. Take this delicious concoction and spread it across the top of the squash and potatoes.
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Once it's up to heat, pop in the gratin and let it bake for somewhere around 45 minutes. Depending on your slicing, you may need to cook it a little bit longer for the veggies to really soften up. A good measure is the topping - once the breadcrumbs have turned a nice golden brown, the dish should be ready to go. If it looks like it needs more time, use a fork to shift the breadcrumbs so that they don't burn.
Pull the gratin out of the oven, drizzle - for rizzle - with the remaining oregano sauce, and consume heartily. The perfect summer side dish!