Tomato Pesto Gratin

Tomato Pesto GratinTomato Pesto Gratin may seem like a summer dish if ever there was one, but the beauty of it is that it brings the familiar flavors of your farmer’s market bounty into your kitchen in the dead of winter. Last weekend, I was toiling around the kitchen after a week-long bout of bronchitis, anxious to cook and eat all the vegetables I could find. Having just spent seven full days with a stuffed nose and congested chest, I wanted bold flavors I could actually taste and enjoy. Side note: I’ll never take my taste buds for granted again. Digging through the crisper, I thought I’d make some omelettes, maybe with some red peppers and spinach, but therein, I spied five plum tomatoes that I had managed to forget about during our brief plague.
Tomato Pesto GratinI know, I know, tomatoes don’t belong in the refrigerator, but when illness set in, there was no common sense exercised about what belonged where, for how long, or why. We’re lucky the cats were fed and, occasionally, the dishwasher ran. Quickly, the idea for bruschetta came to mind, but with temperatures dipping well into the negative numbers, a cold salad alongside some eggs and toast, wasn’t all that appealing. But baked tomatoes were my quick next thought, and a damn good one at that. We had them again this weekend and I’m taking the leftovers for work on Monday alongside a salad and a hunk of crusty sourdough that we got this weekend at a new bakery in our neighborhood. I’m already looking forward to it!
Tomato Pesto GratinBecause I wanted these to be sweet, tender, and concentrated in tomato flavor, I seeded the tomatoes and then roasted them for 10 minutes without any of the filling. A little known fact about me is that I actually really dislike the taste of raw tomatoes, unless they’re in something like bruschetta or salsa where they’re broken down a bit by some kind of acid – lemon or lime, vinegar – and then mixed up with a ton of flavors I love – onion, cilantro or basil, lots and lots of garlic…yum!


Tomato Pesto Gratin

Once the tomatoes are halfway to jammy (that’s a technical phrase), I took them out of the oven and filled them with a tablespoon of homemade pesto I had in my freezer from last summer and then topped each little mound with a small amount of shredded  mozzarella and panko bread crumbs. They cook for another 20 minutes or until the tops become brown and crisp and the cheese and oil from the pesto are both bubbling away.

Tomato Pesto GratinThese are beyond delicious and such an easy any meal, any day of the week, kind of recipe. We had them with eggs – and may or may not have dipped our sourdough toast in all of the oil and juice – but these would be good along side a steak, grilled chicken, fish, as much as they’re a meal all their own with a hearty salad. Tomato Pesto Gratin is my favorite side dish of the New Year so far and I fully expect to fall back on it time and time again between now and actual summer. Between now and July, I plan to eat my fill and then some!

Tomato Pesto Gratin
Yields 5 servings

Ingredients
5 plum tomatoes
2 tablespoons of olive oil
1-1/2 teaspoons of garlic powder, divided
Salt & pepper
3/4 cup of pesto (mine was cold, so it made it easy to scoop rounded tablespoons into the tomato halves)
1/2 cup of shredded mozzarella cheese
3/4 cup of panko bread crumbs

Directions
Preheat your oven to 375°F. Slice tomatoes in half and scoop out seeds and center flesh. You can toss this or use it in a soup, salsa, or as part of a light pasta sauce at another time. In a bowl, add the tomatoes and then douse with two tablespoons of olive oil. Toss to coat and then arrange in a baking dish that is about an inch taller than the height of the tomatoes. Sprinkle a teaspoon of the garlic powder over the tomatoes and add salt and pepper. Bake for 10-15 minutes.

Remove the tomatoes from the oven and raise the temperature to 400°F. Fill each tomato half with a tablespoon of the pesto and top with approximately the same amount of shredded mozzarella cheese. Spoon 2 tablespoons of panko bread crumbs over each tomato half and top all of the pieces with the remaining 1/2 teaspoon of garlic powder. Return to the oven and bake for another 20 minutes or until the panko is lightly browned and crisp.

Jalapeño Creamed Spinach

When I was growing up, vegetables were three things: plentiful, cheap, and usually canned. So, on the occasional night when my mom could be seen defrosting a tiny square box in the microwave and wringing it’s contents out over the sink, it meant creamed spinach was on the menu and that felt fancy. Despite it’s name, though, the closest my mother’s version came to any kind of dairy was a can of condensed cream of mushroom soup. That’s it. Just those two ingredients. Still, we all happily ate it and will do the same until our dying days. That’s family.

I first had a version of jalapeño creamed spinach a few years ago at Brasa, a rotisserie restaurant in Minneapolis that serves Creole-inspired comfort food. Everything I’ve ever eaten at Brasa has been delicious and tends to be the place we hit up for dinner as soon as the weather starts to turns warm and the patio opens. Their variety of braised and pulled meats is small – two chicken options, a pork, and a beef – but they’re done so exquisitely with mouthwatering rubs like garlic and lime. Their sides hold their own, too, and rival the meats for greatness, but if you’re asking me, nothing touches their creamed spinach with jalapeño. It is absurdly good.

After the first time I had it, I stopped at the grocery store on the way home (like a creamy-spinach-fueled lunatic) to pick up the ingredients I thought would help me to recreate it the following night. That first time, I came close, but it took some tweaking and then some cues from Laurie Colwin’s version in Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen before the recipe developed to where it is now, which is at tasty. Yet, somehow, with all of my trial and error (and we happily ate every single “error”), it fell out of my rotation. That was until I saw Andrew Zimmern mention Brasa on Twitter this week and I was swiftly transported back to the night I made this final version and Bear finished the leftovers before they had even cooled enough to be refrigerated. (Side note: The photo above is actually from that very night, before we dug in! I discovered it in my online recipe file when I went to find the recipe today. Vintage Femme Fraîche, right there!)

This is creamed spinach the way it should be made; with milk, cheese, and butter. It’s rich, but the jalapeños cut through the heaviness of it in such a way that I can’t imagine them not being there. That vinegary, spicy bite aside the soft bitterness of the spinach, and the lusciousness of the creamy cheese sauce, is comfort food done right. If you’re looking for traditional, delicate creamed spinach, this is not that recipe. This is the side dish that threatens to outdo the whole meal, dessert included.

Jalapeño Creamed Spinach
Serves 4-6 as a side dish

Ingredients:
2 – 10oz. packages of chopped, frozen spinach, squeezed dry (reserve at least 1 cup of spinach liquid)
1/4 cup of yellow onion, diced
2 cloves of garlic diced finely or put through a garlic press
1 stick of butter, divided in half
2 Tablespoonx of olive oil
2 Tablespoons of flour
1/2 cup of evaporated milk
1/2 teaspoon of black pepper
3/4 teaspoon of celery salt
6oz. monterey jack cheese, cubed
1 – 4oz. can of diced jalapeños, drained (substitute canned green chiles for less spice)
1 1/2 cups of panko bread crumbs
4 tablespoons of parmesan cheese
1/2 teaspoons of garlic powder

Directions:
Preheat your oven to 350°. Defrost the spinach and drain in a collander over a bowl, squeezing it into a tight ball until barely any liquid remains. In a medium-sized pot, melt 1/2 the stick of butter and add the flour, stirring constantly over medium heat until combined, forming a roux. Allow to cook for a solid minute in order to remove the raw flour flavor. Remove the roux from the pan and set aside. Add the olive oil to the pot and follow with the onions and garlic. Sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper. Allow the onions and the garlic to sweat and soften before adding the roux back in and allowing to combine for a minute or so. Next, add the spinach liquid and evaporated milk, slowly, whisking constantly until the mixture becomes smooth and thickens. Add the monterey jack cheese, the black pepper, and celery salt, and allow to combine until the cheese has melted and the sauce is smooth. Once the sauce has thickened, add the diced jalapeños and the spinach. The mixture should, at this point, be the consistency of a thick cheese sauce, like a spinach artichoke dip, and your spoon should follow it around the pot with little resistance. If it seems too thick, add another tablespoon or two of the remaining spinach liquid or evaporated milk.

Pour the spinach into a greased baking dish and set aside. In a small bowl, microwave the remaining 4T of butter until melted. Add a dash or two of black pepper, and the garlic powder; combine. Pour in the panko crumbs and the parmesan cheese and toss together, allowing the bread crumbs to absorb the butter mixture. Top the spinach with the bread crumbs and place in the preheated oven for about 20 minutes or until the spinach is hot and the top has browned slightly. Check the dish occasionally to make sure the crumbs are not browning too quickly and if so, cover with foil until the dish is heated through and is slightly bubbly at the edges. When finished, remove the spinach from the oven and allow to sit for 5 minutes before serving.