Friday, September 3, 2010

Nostalgic cooking: Zucchini + bechamel = casserole deliciousness

Ever have one a food-related a-ha moment? Where something you hadn't thought of in DECADES comes across your path and it's like no time has passed at all... you MUST try it, make it, eat it, and the sooner the better... I hope I'm not the only one who has these moments, but if I am, I guess I can deal with it...

Recently I spied a piece in the NYTimes on olive oil bechamel and it seemed like a great experiment to try. I've made bechamel sauce on the lower-fat side before by substituting low-fat milk for whole, but using olive oil in place of the butter hadn't ever crossed my mind.

And, the first recipe that popped into my brain to try with the bechamel was an old (I first made when I was 12 or 13, I think), cheap take on a zucchini moussaka. Well, actually there isn't much "moussaka" about it, other than the zucchini and the bechamel. I don't remember quite where I got the idea, but I remember breading and frying up slices of a big zucchini, layering them in a deep-ish casserole dish, and pouring bechamel over the top and baking the whole thing until it was bubbly. I don't know quite what possessed me to try it back in the day, but for some reason it stands out in my mind as something I really enjoyed.

As luck would have it, our zucchini plants this summer went the way of the garden voles right around the first of August. It was a bit sad, but I'd had plenty of zucchini sticks and zucchini "pasta" in the earlier summer weeks and wasn't convinced I needed any more... until this recipe came along! So off to the store I went. The up side to buying store zucchini is that they are all small-ish and uniform. The down side to buying store zucchini is that they are all small-ish and uniform. No easy-peasy huge slices of zucchini to fry up here... this took some effort. (And was well worth it!)

Zucchini bechamel casserole
6 small to medium zucchini, sliced into 1/4-inch rounds
3-4 eggs, beaten well
2 Tbsp. milk
Bread crumbs

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Beat the eggs well and add the milk. Pour the milk/egg mixture over the zucchini slices in a medium bowl, tossing well. Take zucchini slices and dip into the bread crumb mixture so that both sides are coated, and fry in a non-stick fry pan until golden brown on both sides. Set aside until cool.

Arrange zucchini slices in a baking dish or casserole--I used an 8-inch pyrex dish. After making the olive oil bechamel (see below), pour it over the zucchini slices and jiggle the pan a bit to get the sauce to settle into the zucchini. Bake for about a half hour, until the sauce is bubbly and the sauce darkens a bit.

Zucchini fried up and ready for sauce.
Olive oil bechamel
Makes 1 1/2 cups 
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons finely chopped shallot or onion (optional, I didn't use)
2 tablespoons flour
2 cups low-fat (1 percent) milk
Salt to taste
Freshly ground white or black pepper

Heat the oil over medium heat in a heavy medium saucepan. Add the shallot or onion, and cook, stirring, until softened, about three minutes. Stir in flour, and cook, stirring, for about three minutes until smooth and bubbling but not browned. The paste should have the texture of wet sand. (Here's where I deviated--mine resembled really, really wet sand, so I added another tablespoon or so of flour, and it perked right up.)

Whisk in the milk all at once, and bring to a simmer, whisking all the while, until the mixture begins to thicken. Turn the heat to very low, and simmer, stirring often with a whisk and scraping the bottom and edges of the pan with a rubber spatula, for 10 minutes (more like 20, for me), until the sauce has thickened and lost its raw flour taste. Season with salt and pepper. Strain while hot into a heatproof bowl or a Pyrex measuring cup.

This sauce never got as thick as I was expecting it to. Next time I may experiment with cooling it all the way down, as it mentions in the NYTimes article that it cools and reheats well--that might also thicken it too. But it worked just wonderfully to pour over the zucchini slices and baked up nicely in the oven. Also, the flavor seemed to improve over time-- I reheated it as leftovers for lunch the next couple of days and it got better and better.

Post-baking, still bubbling.

A true zucchini moussaka would involve tomatoes, various spices and probably beef. I just might be persuaded to give that a whirl one of these days. But between now and then, I have more happy memories of true summer comfort food... me and my bechamel!


  1. In days of yore...we had bushels of zucchini some summers and we tried every which way to use it up. That is probably how you came up with the experimental use of them. I do like the idea of olive oil instead of butter...I would imagine the flavor would be somewhat different but very good?

  2. Mmmmm... this looks delicious and not like a TON of work. I must try.


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