Sunday, 3 November 2013

Small-Sized Sensations

Piccoli Zucchine, Pomodorini & Caperi Gratinate
Mini Zucchini, Cherry Tomato & Caper Gratin

Occasionally, I will buy zucchini blossoms, which are delicious in themselves, but I always love the sweet and tender baby zucchini that they are attached to as well- they are such a treat! So yesterday, when I was at the market hall and I noticed Nina trimming off some of the less than perfect blossoms and saving the little zucchini, I asked her what she was going to do with them. "Oh, well we can't really sell these as they are, without the blossoms", she said. "Hmmm" I said, "I think you can sell them to me!". And so she did! 

I have to say that the combination of flavors I tried out with them worked so well, that I will attempt this again using regular zucchini too- it is just that those little ones are just so cute and adorable! lol! It is the method that I tried that is the most interesting thing about it really, cutting them into slices part-ways, down to the stem end, so that they can be fanned, so that they cook quickly and so that they can soak up plenty of flavor. I had some regular zucchini cut this way on my last trip to Rome and they were lightly spread with anchovy paste, dipped in batter and deep fried... what a taste sensation! So with that as my inspiration, I set out to create a sensational dish of my own!

I prepared the zucchini by cutting them first, in half and then making a cut on either side of that first, central cut- thus giving me 4 slices, hanging together at the stem end of the zucchini. To make more slices would make these little beauties  to fragile- this way they still hold together well during cooking.

I then popped them onto a steam rack, into a saucepan and let them steam for 5 minutes, then rinsed them off under cold running water to stop the cooking process. And no- you do not need to prepare a bath of ice-cubes... seriously! Too much drama- cold water is fine- you just don't want them to sit there in their own heat and continue getting softer and soggier- that is the whole point - the final result is nicely cooked but still has a nice bite to it.

Next, the cherry tomatoes. I cut the tomatoes in half and sprinkled them with a little salt, then popped them into a frying pan, in which I had just enough water to cover the surface. I turned on the heat and let them bubble away for a while and in the meantime started preparing the bread crumbs for the gratin.

For the seasoned bread crumbs, I finely chopped a little parsley, mint, rosemary and basil and set these to one side. In a small frying pan, I started frying 1 teaspoon of anchovy paste with 2 tablespoons of olive oil and as soon as it had dissolved completely, I added the crumbs- this was about 2 cups and the mixed herbs and stirred them through nicely until everything was well mixed.

In the meantime, the water had evaporated away in the pan with the tomatoes and I added a drop of olive oil, and flipped them over once, shook them around a little so they would get a bit of heat to the other side and then got ready to assemble the gratin.

The only thing missing, was a little cheese, which I added in the form of finely diced mozzarella, which I stirred into the bread crumbs as soon as they had cooled off a little. I built up the gratin by first sprinkling the baking dish with bread crumbs and cheese, then setting the tomatoes out on top of the crumbs and then laying the zucchini in-between, fanning them out a little so that they would bake better and get coated with all of the good flavors. 

I then sprinkled the other cheesy bread crumbs evenly all around, and added the final ingredient which was capers. I added a generous amount and I am so glad that I did! To be honest, I just wanted to empty the jar... little did I know at the time, that when they bake and dry out a little, just how awesome their flavor becomes! Trust me- you will love it- they become firm and chewy in the most wonderful way!

A nice, generous grind of mixed peppers, a drizzle of olive oil and 10 minutes in the oven at 300° had everything sizzling away and looking mighty fine! And then I had the idea of adding a light drizzle of honey- it was just intuition- but thank goodness I can rely on mine! Just a little mind you- but it made all the difference- especially as I popped the gratin back in the oven for 2 minutes under the broiler, which let the honey melt into the cheese and the crumbs and to caramelize everything ever so slightly but oh so amazingly! 

The sweetness brought out the best in the zucchini and tomatoes and also counter-balanced the tartness of the capers... and that together with the herbs and the crispiness of the crumbs... well... need I say more? Simply delicious and just begging for you to try out! And I do hope that you do- I can't wait to make this again already!

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