14 September 2022: Comfort Gratin
It's rare that anything really personal finds its way into these essays. Most of them are about cooking technique, ingredients, method, or the provenance of a particular recipe. First person singular pronouns are kept to a minimum because it's not about me or even what I know. After all, what we know is nothing to take credit for, since most of it came from someone else.
There may be a passing thought on a lesson learned about exercising patience or focus in the kitchen, or perhaps a reminder that the most important thing in cooking is pleasing ourselves and our loved ones. But the most personal any of them ever get is to touch on how a dish makes me feel and/or its connection with someone dear to me.
This one, however, is very personal.
We've had a difficult summer in our household. Not only have we been adjusting to life in a new community and climate, making and renewing old friendships, and missing friends left behind, there's been the almost overwhelming task of rescuing our new home from two decades of wanton neglect.
Our biggest challenge, however, has been unfolding more than three hundred miles away. Not long after we moved here, my elderly parents, after several years of steady decline, reluctantly moved to an assisted living facility. Since then, their decline has been rapid. And late last month, less than three months shy of his ninety-fifth birthday, my father's health completely collapsed and he died peacefully in his sleep. It was the most peaceful thing he's ever done in his life.
The Reverend Warren Earle Fowler was a remarkable man: a deep-thinking theologian, caring pastor, socially progressive community leader, and environmental activist long before that was even a thing. My younger brother likes to recall the time he carelessly tossed a gum wrapper out the window of the car only to have my father stop, back up, and make him get out, find that wrapper, and pick it up before they went on. That kind of intensity is how Dad met everything.
But arguably his greatest virtue was his deep capacity for love, particularly for his family. It could also be argued that it was his greatest fault. Just as his love was enormous, so were his expectations. And those were not always easy to live with, never mind live up to. Criticism would be swift and often harsh, while praise was usually slow to come and understated.
The best way to sum his character is to borrow the words Victor Hazan wrote of his late wife, Marcella, the celebrated doyenne of Italian cooking: "Marcella was not always easy, but she was true." That sums my father perfectly: not always easy, but always true.
So. Now there will be no more lectures on how little sense I have, on the huge mistakes I have made, am making, and am likely to make in the not-too-distant future. We've heard his last diatribe about the sorry state of The Church, our country and government, and our world and abused environment.
Will I miss those lectures? Honestly, no. But I will miss the palpable love that lay behind them. I'll also miss the integrity by which he lived, and through which he inspired so many generations, including my own. And I'll look forward to that meeting on the other side, when, however I've met my end, he's sure to say, "My land, Son! Didn't I tell you not to do that?"
Zucchini Gratin with French Fried Onion Rings
We came home from Dad's funeral tired, emotionally drained, and needing comfort food. I also needed to use up some zucchini that had been bought before we knew we were going to be away. Those two needs were met in an old-fashioned Southern-style squash casserole, topped (because I'm a true child of the sixties), with French fried onion rings. I could've made twice as much and we would've eaten every scrap.
12 ounces medium-small zucchini squash (about 2)
1 generous tablespoon unsalted butter
1 medium clove garlic, lightly crushed, peeled, and chopped fine
Salt and whole black pepper in a mill
8-10 basil leaves
2 thick slices stale white sandwich bread, crust removed, roughly crumbled
1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh oregano (or ½ teaspoon crumbled dried)
¼ cup coarsely grated Gruyere cheese
1 heaped tablespoon finely grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese
2-3 tablespoons roughly crumbled French-fried onion rings
1. Scrub the zucchini under cold water and pat dry. Trim the blossom and stem ends and thinly slice them (about 1/8-inch thick). Put the butter in a 9-inch skillet over medium low heat. Cover the bottom of the pan with half the squash. Sprinkle lightly with salt, pepper, and half the garlic. Add the remaining squash, spreading to level it, and sprinkle with salt, pepper and the remaining garlic. Cover and cook, carefully turning the squash halfway through, until softened and tender, about 8-10 minutes. The zucchini will shed a lot of its moisture. Don't let that completely evaporate; if it does before the squash are tender, add a spoonful or so of water as needed.
2. Uncover and remove the pan from the heat. Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat it to 375° F. Generously butter a small (1 quart) casserole or 8-inch gratin dish. Finely chop the basil. You should have about 2 teaspoons. Fold the basil, bread crumbs, and oregano into the zucchini. Add 3 tablespoons of the Gruyere and gently mix.
3. Turn the zucchini into the prepared baking dish, leveling the top with a spatula or wooden spoon. Sprinkle the remaining tablespoon of Gruyere, the Parmigiano-Reggiano, and the crumbled onion rings evenly over the casserole and bake in the center of the oven until it's lightly browned, about 25-30 minutes. Let stand 5-10 minutes before serving warm.