September has always been my favorite month. The grimy, relentless sauna that is New York City in August finally lifts and we can almost always count on a solid week (or more) of impossibly sunny low-humidity days that I consider my personal obligation — as happy repentance for all the above griping — to spend entirely outdoors. My best memories are from Septembers; this may sound weird, but I remember going to work on the morning that nobody knew yet would be 9/11 and thinking it was as clear-skied and gorgeous out as a day could ever be. Two years later, I met my husband on that day. Six years and a few days after that, we met our baby boy, and I distinctly remember checking into the hospital on a hot summer day and checking out three days later when it was unquestionably fall, disoriented.
And yet, the last few Septembers have roundly kicked my ass. Since having a kid, a pattern has emerged of September being back to everything that will continue for a decade or two. This one is especially a doozy — good stuff, all (holidays and baby namings and birthdays and first days of all the things) but still lacking in a single unscheduled, unstructured day. All of this is to say: thank god for freezer meals.* I didn’t make many when I was frenetically nesting in the third trimester. Mostly, I liked the idea of them more than I had the energy to make them happen. Post-baby, my husband was off for few weeks and worked from home for a couple more, making dinner every night (yay) so freezer reserves needn’t be called in. But now, now that we are ostensibly back to “it,” Deb of June 2015, I’d like to thank you.
And you! A few years ago, I wrote about a zucchini tomato and rice gratin that we like to make in the late summer, a layered casserole of roasted tomatoes, zucchini, cheese and rice with fun stuff like garlic, sauteed onion and eggs. It’s as delicious as it sounds, but also rather full of steps. And dishes. Several people suggested in the comments that I make Julia Child’s Zucchini Rice Gratin instead, and I was all “Julia Child has a rice gratin?” It seemed so strange to me, so different from what I expected from her classic French repertoire. Even more embarrassing is that it hails from a book that has forever been on my shelf and clearly not given enough time in the spotlight, a 1970 first edition of the equally-worthy but much less gushed-over Volume II of Mastering The Art Of French Cooking that my father had given my mother at the time with an inscription complimenting how far her cooking had come. For shame, Deb.**
But the dish is fantastic. A giant cheerleading pyramid of zucchini (okay, 2.5 pounds) is shredded, salted and reduced to a moderate heap, mixed with a tiny amount of uncooked rice, some onion sauteed until sweet, garlic, and a just-right amount of Parmesan and baked in a dish until you wonder why you’d ever eat zucchini another way. This is not a gratin in the swimming-in-cream or in the baked-cheese-with-a-few-flecks-of-vegetables sense, but in the casserole-of-the-highest-calling ideal, largely wholesome, bronzed lid, freezing and reheating perfectly. Let’s all make a habit of it.
* Freezer Meals: Looking for more? Check out this list for some of our favorites. Plus, a few more coming this month as I work through them. And do suggest any favorites from the archives that you like to freeze we may have missed — thank you!
** Volume II: For those of you who have cooked more than me (clearly!) from Volume II, tell me about your favorites from there. We’re about to make up for lost time, posthaste.
One year ago: Chocolate and Toasted Hazelnut Milk and Herbed Tomato and Roasted Garlic Tart
Two years ago: Baked Pasta with Broccoli Rabe and Sausage (another freezer love)
Three years ago: Fig, Olive Oil and Sea Salt Challah
Four years ago: Roasted Eggplant with Tomatoes and Mint and Red Wine Chocolate Cake
Five years ago: Grape Focaccia with Rosemary and Linguine with Tomato-Almond Pesto
Six years ago: Nectarine Galette and Corn Bread Salad
Seven years ago: Crisp Rosemary Flatbread and Marinated Eggplant with Capers and Mint
Eight years ago: Hoisin Barbecue Sauce
[New!] Nine years ago: Silky Cauliflower Soup, Key Lime Tart and Romaine Pesto and Egg-Stuffed Tomatoes
And for the other side of the world:
Six Months Ago: Red Bean and Green Grain Taco Bowl and Black Bottom Oatmeal Pie
1.5 Years Ago: Broccoli Cheddar and Wild Rice Casserole
2.5 Years Ago: Potato Knish, Two Ways
3.5 Years Ago: Coconut Bread
Zucchini, Rice and Cheese Gratin [Tian de Courgettes au Riz]
From Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume II
2 1/2 pounds (about 1 1/8 kg) zucchini
2 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt (I use Diamond brand, use 1 1/2 of other brands)
1/2 cup (90 grams) plain, uncooked white rice
1 medium onion, minced (about 1 cup)
5 tablespoons (75 ml) olive oil, divided
2 large cloves garlic, mashed or finely minced
2 tablespoons (15 grams) all-purpose flour
Milk, as needed, although broth of your choice would work just fine
2/3 cup (55 grams) grated Parmesan cheese, divided
Salt and pepper
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 5 minutes, says Julia Child, but more like 20 or, if you’ve got the time, up to 30 minutes.
Save drained liquid and squeeze a handful of the zucchini and taste. If it’s very salty, rinse and drain it again (not saving liquid this time). Squeeze all of the zucchini in handfuls, gently, collecting any juices in the bowl of drained liquid. Blot dry on paper towels.
Prepare rice: Boil for exactly 5 minutes in salted water. Drain and set aside. [In comments I’ve read about this recipe online, many people say that they skip this step and it all works out in the oven. But I didn’t this time.]
Prepare remaining ingredients: In a large frying pan, cook 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; season with salt and pepper. 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. If you have less than 2 1/2 cups, add milk to bring the level up to it. (I became sidetracked and mine drained for an hour; I ended up with the full 2 1/2 cups and needed no milk.)
Stir into zucchini-onion mixture, return pan to stove over medium-high heat and bring to a simmer, stirring. Remove from heat again, stir in par-cooked rice and all but 2 tablespoons cheese. Taste and adjust seasoning if needed.
Turn into a 2-quart baking dish, or 2 smaller 1-quart dishes (as I did, with the intention of freezing one). Sprinkle with reserved cheese and remaining olive oil, although I apparently used butter instead, because: butter
You can cook it right away, or let it sit until 30 minutes before you want to serve it.
30 minutes before serving: Heat oven to 425 degrees. 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. Serve immediately.