Friday, September 28, 2007

Zucchini and Tomato Gratin and Alice Waters' Food Revolution

Alice Waters is everywhere these days, shopping at the Union Square Greenmarket, cooking lunch for New York Times reporter Kim Severson, advocating for fresh and locally-grown food in Gourment Magazine, publishing a manifesto on the American food supply, changing the way we look at what we eat.

I must admit, I had never thought much about locally-grown produce. I'd heard the rumors, and I'd even shopped at the Union Square Greenmarket in New York City, but it was never really part of my consciousness. But, Susan at The Food Blogga is crazy for vegetables, and in the past year, she's caught my eye more than once with some of the freshest and colorful veggy creations on the planet. When Jill took me to the Ottawa Farmer's market to forage for ingredients for what she insisted be a locally-grown Canadian Feast, I could no longer deny the fact that there was something to this whole perspective. Frankly, the produce was far superior to anything I've ever come across in my local Waldbaum's grocery store.

So I was intriqued when a colleague suggested I pick up "Alice Waters and Chez Panisse: The Romantic, Impractical, Often Eccentric, Ultimately Brilliant Making of a Food Revolution." How can you pass up a title like that? It's a little like something P.T. Barnum might have dreamt up!

Author Thomas McNamee delves into Alice Waters' psyche, the origins of the world famous Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkley, Calif0rnia, and most important, Waters' philosophy about food -- that it must be fresh, locally-grown and sustainable. The book is a tasty read, indeed. McNamee explores Alice's highly developed senses, her extraordinary palate, and the sex, drugs and drama in the kitchen at Chez Panisse over more than 30 years. There is her obsession with salad, and her drive to change the diets of American school children with the incredible "Edible Schoolyard" project that teaches children to grow, prepare and eat fresh food.

I'd made the obligatory foodie pilgrimage to Chez Panisse in 2004, but what I was lacking then was context. At the time, I didn't fully understand the philosophy behind the food. It would be a very different meal for me now. Alice's ethos says that food, ingredients and community are interdependent, and ingredients properly grown and prepared can sustain the community. Still, I have been troubled by the term "revolution" that is used frequently when referring to Alice Waters. To me, a revolution suggests dramatic, and permanent change. Waters has a life-long calling and mission, indeed. But there is still a significant portion of the population who won't or can't eat locally-grown produce. Still, I can't get those dazzling purple cauliflower I saw in Ottawa, or the stunning yellow zucchini from the North Fork of Long Island out of my mind.

Maybe a revolution can happen in a quiet kind of way, not dramatically, but with crisp flavors, and beautifully brilliant flashes of color. Maybe, if we all committed to one locally-grown dish per week, behaviors might begin to evolve, habits would change, health would improve and good taste would prevail. So I dug out my copy of Chez Panisse Vegetables, and joined the revolution, using locally-grown ingredients I purchased on the North Fork of Long Island:
Zucchini and Tomato Gratin (Adapted From Chez Panisse Vegetables by Alice Waters)
1 yellow onion
Olive oil
Salt and pepper
1 branch fresh thyme
Fresh basil leaves
6 plum tomatoes
2 large yellow zucchini
Balsamic vinegar
Panko bread crumbs
Chop onion and sautee in olive oil until translucent. Season with salt and pepper, add thyme leaves and basil. Slice tomatoes and zucchini into rounds. Layer the onion mixture in a deep, buttered quiche pan. Add a layer of tomatoes in an overlapping, circular pattern. Season with salt and pepper and sprinkle with balsamic vinegar. Add a layer of zucchini and alternate with tomatoes until the dish is full. Finish with a layer of zucchini and sprinkle with Panko bread crumbs, season with salt and pepper and drizzle with olive oil. Bake in a 350 degree oven uncovered for about 30 to 45 minutes.

Meantime, I'm off to Vermont in search of autumn leaves and food artisans of New England. See you back here later in October.

©2007 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved


Lydia (The Perfect Pantry) said...

The gratin is beautiful, though the recipe points out the dichotomy of "locally grown" -- I'm guessing the panko and balsamic are not local NYC products. And that's fine -- I think there's a case to be made for quality, and for artisanal products that reflect the cuisine and culture of other parts of the world. I do think Alice Waters started a revolution, but it has been a slow one that only now is manifesting itself as a movement, instead of the dogged efforts of one individual. Hooray for Alice!

Anonymous said...

What a beautiful gratin! What do you think of that auto biographical book, was it an interesting read? Also , Alice has a new book, which i am still on the fence about - too many cookboks right now. I love buying local stuff.

T.W. Barritt at Culinary Types said...

Hi Lydia - in all honesty, I added the Panko, because I like a little crunch on my topping. So, I completely agree about artisanal products!

Hi Veron - I couldn't put the book down - it was fascinating, and incorporates narrative and menus from 30 years at Chez Panisse. I'm keeping an eye out for Alice's new book. It's supposed to be available next week.

Kathy said...

The idea of locally-grown produce has become much more appealing to me in the last couple of years. I found that it's much more difficult to locate in my large metro area than I had anticipated.

Stella said...

Seriously, That's the most beautiful gratin I've ever seen!!!!!

Susan from Food Blogga said...

Alice Waters is such an inspiration, especially her edible schoolyard project. I'm thrilled that you did a post on her, and I'm eager to read her book in its entirety. Thanks for the link too, T.W. I really appreciate it! And yes I love my farmers' markets--Buy local! Buy local! ;)

Sandi @the WhistleStop Cafe said...

I have some fresh yellow squash and local tomatoes, a little basil from my flower pots... A perfect local meal!

Diane said...

Tempting gratin. Another use of the very last, very local, tomatoes from the garden. Certainly Alice brought attention to a need to return to our roots...and heightening awareness for fresh local produce. An easier task for a California based gal. A bit more challenging here in the Northeast. Enjoy the foliage of New England!!!

Stella said...

Love your gratin T.W. The decoration is perfect!

Jann said...

You did a beautiful job on this gratin~see, I really do need to come to your libary!I must watch for this new book..Artisanal, music to my ears. Will drive an extra mile for products as these-quality and more!