Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Zucchini, Rice and Cheese Gratin

By Leslie Budewitz

One of my favorite food blogs is Deb Pererlman’s Smitten Kitchen. Perelman lives and cooks in a NY apartment with a small kitchen—no gourmet showrooms or palatial spaces with room for every kitchen appliance imaginable. Her recipes are much-tested and easy to follow, and beautifully photographed, step-by-step. And while she does occasionally offer a combo I can resist—you will never catch me frying an egg on top of anything—most of her food is easy to imagine making myself. (The perfect Manhattan? Yes!)

And she knows the classics. She’ll play with them, or as with this dish, serve it fairly straight. The original recipe comes from Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume II.

We used the creaky, old full-sized food processor to grate the zucchini—it’s messy, leaving a pool of green liquid wherever it sits, but it makes quick work of the job with no scraped knuckles! We let the grated zucchini sit about 20 minutes, while we readied everything else, and got about a cup of liquid, which we supplemented with vegetable broth. We parboiled the rice and it came out perfectly; many comments say that’s not necessary, and next time, I’ll try the suggestion of simply letting it sit for five minutes, covered, in hot water, then draining it.

We used vegetable broth; chicken broth would also taste good. The original recipe calls for milk, which would be too rich for my taste, but is worth a try.

Perelman suggests baking in two one-quart dishes and freezing one; we have not tried that yet.

The salt: Our kitchen cabinets have become a storehouse for varieties of salt: Fleur de sel from the Camargue region of France, two varieties of gray Celtic sea salt, pink Himalayan salt, truffle salt, and who knows what else. (The refrigerator corollary: We once had nine varieties of mustard, but are now down to four. Bummer. I feel a mustard spree coming on.) But when we tried the Great Paddlefish Roe experiment, we used up all the kosher salt in the house, and somehow didn’t replace it. So when I saw Diamond, the brand Perelman recommended, in the grocery store, I bought a lifetime supply for 3.89. Actually, I doubt it will last more than a decade or so, barring any more paddlefish experiments.

This dish is the perfect accompaniment for Krista’s Parmesan Baked Chicken Breasts.

Zucchini, Rice and Cheese Gratin 

2-1/2 pounds zucchini
2 to 2-1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
1/2 cup plain, uncooked white rice
1 medium onion, finely chopped (about 1 cup)
4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
2 large cloves garlic, mashed or finely minced
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
Broth or milk
2/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese, divided
Salt and pepper
Cooking spray or butter for dish

Prepare zucchini: Wash zucchini and trim ends. Halve lengthwise, and if seeds are particularly large, core them out. Coarsely grate and place in a colander set over a bowl. Toss with kosher salt. Let drain for 20-30 minutes.

 Save drained liquid.  Squeeze a handful of the zucchini and taste; if you think it’s too salty, rinse and drain again, but don’t save the liquid this time. Squeeze all of the zucchini in handfuls, gently, collecting any juices in the bowl of drained liquid. (Perelman says blot dry on paper towels; I didn’t and all was well.)

Prepare rice: Boil for exactly 5 minutes in salted water. Drain and set aside.

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

Prepare remaining ingredients: In a large frying pan, saute the onions slowly in 3 tablespoons 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 and dried zucchini and garlic; add a few twists of pepper, and salt to taste. Toss and turn for 5 to 6 minutes until the zucchini is almost tender. Sprinkle in the flour, stir over moderate heat for 2 minutes, and remove from heat.

Assemble dish: Measure the drained liquid from the zucchini. Add broth or milk to bring the amount up to 2 1/2 cups.  Stir the liquid into the zucchini-onion mixture. Bring to medium-high heat and bring to a simmer, stirring.

Stir in the par-cooked rice and all but 2 tablespoons cheese. Taste and adjust seasoning if needed.

Spray or butter a 2 or 3 quart baking dish. Sprinkle with reserved 2 tablespoons cheese and one tablespoon olive oil. (I think this could also be prepared and baked in a cast iron pan or other oven-proof skillet.)

Bake in upper third of oven until bubbling and browned on top, about 25 to 30 minutes. (If yours begins to brown too quickly, you can cover it with foil until the last 5 minutes.) The rice should absorb all the liquid. Let rest five minutes; any extra liquid bubbling around the edges should be absorbed as it rests. Serve hot.

Serves 6.

From the cover of BUTTER OFF DEAD: As the national bestselling Food Lovers’ Village mysteries continue, the merchants of Jewel Bay, Montana try to heat up chilly winter business with a new film festival. But their plans are sent reeling when a dangerous killer dims the lights on a local mover and shaker …

Leslie Budewitz is the author of the Food Lovers’ Village Mysteries and the Spice Shop Mysteries—and the first author to win Agatha Awards for both fiction and nonfiction. She lives in northwest Montana with her husband, a musician and doctor of natural medicine, and their cat Ruff, a cover model and avid bird-watcher.

Connect with her on her website or on Facebook.


  1. I love Smitten Kitchen, too. I this both this and Krista' chicken are going on the menu this week.

  2. Thank you for the recipe and link! Smitten Kitchen is new (for me).

  3. Count me as a Smitten Kitchen fan too! Daniele, sounds like a delicious meal!

  4. Sounds great, Leslie! Thanks for such a lovely dish to serve with the chicken!

  5. A classic of the first order.

  6. Libby, yes -- on my first bite, I said "Where have you been all my life? Why didn't I KNOW???"

    Off to Bouchercon -- talk to you next week!