Monday, August 17, 2009

Preserving Heirlooms

Preserving Heirlooms

It seems most cultures generally accept that an heirloom---something passed from generation to generation---is something to be respected and valued. Heirlooms have stories that keep them alive. What is unspoken in the act of preserving heirlooms is being a living part of a continuum that holds a tangible and positive belief in future generations, in the quality of life, and in being human on planet earth.

"You walked into the root cellar from the side of the house, from the porch off the side door. The large wooden doors---a kind of paint scraped gray---were slanted, higher in the back, and came together in the middle. Mostly you just used the right side. Reaching down, you’d grab the knotted rope tied to the door handle and pull hard. The door would come up half way, and then you needed to kind of get under it and grab the corner and push it on over to the wall of the house, where it rested.

I remember walking down the stairs with some hesitation, always, as they were basically just narrow slats with nothing but air in between and the hard dirt floor way below. No railing, just some very cold and spider-webby glazed blocks as walls, the foundation of the house.

Once down, though, I was always in a state of intense fascination. We’d never stay long. There never seemed like enough time to really visually take in all that was around me, especially because it took a few minutes for your eyes to adjust to the very low light. Sometimes there were bushel baskets full of vegetables…maybe squash or onions. But there were always the long, tall rows of shelves, board wood, that held glass jars of all sizes both white and green. Grandma usually knew exactly what she was looking for…2 quarts of tomatoes, one of peaches, one of green beans.

Maybe we’d stay long enough to go even deeper into the underground space and gather up the laundry that tumbled out of the chute and into the basket when we pulled on another little door with a rope knot handle just above our heads. She had a wringer washer. I thought helping to run the clothes through the wringer was always a blast.

More than once, for sure, when we went to put the clothes into the round white enamel machine---it was always covered with a crudely cut round piece of wood---Grandma lifted the lid to find a pool of minnows. My Grandpa stashed them there, sometimes, until he was ready to go fishing." ~ Recollections from an Appalachian Childhood

Summer Squash, Yukon Gold Potato & Heirloom Tomato Gratin


  • 1 garlic clove, smashed
  • 1 medium onion, thinly sliced
  • 1 1/2 pounds yellow summer squash and zucchini, cut into 1/4-inch slices
  • 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
  • 1/4 cup fresh basil leaves (use Thyme or Oregano as a variation)
  • 1/4 cup fresh Italian parsley
  • 2 large garlic cloves, chopped
  • 1/4 teaspoon sea salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper
  • 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1/4 cup unsalted butter
  • 2 cups fresh sourdough bread crumbs (see below)
  • 1/2 pound yukon gold potatoes, sliced very thin (almost transparent)
  • 1-1.5 pounds large Heirloom tomatoes, cored and sliced 1/4 inch thick (varying colors of tomatoes)
  • 3/4 cup freshly grated Gruyere cheese, grated (try goat cheese or feta as a nice variation)
  • 1.4 cup freshly grated parmesan-reggiano

Preheat oven to 375 degrees and place a rack in the middle. Rub a 2 qt. gratin pan (or equivalent baking dish but preferably oval) with a bit of olive oil then take one garlic clove – smash it and rub over inside of pan, and set aside.

In a skillet, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onions and sauté, stirring frequently, until transparent and slightly golden – about 15 minutes. Reduce the heat if they’re browning too quickly. Add the garlic and sauté until soft and fragrant, about 1 minute. Spread the onions and garlic evenly in the bottom of the oiled gratin dish. Let cool.

To make the sauce: puree the basil, parsley, garlic, 1/4 teaspoon salt, red pepper flakes, and olive oil in a food processor or using a hand blender. Set aside.

Put the tomato slices on a shallow plate to drain for a few minutes and then discard the collected juices.

Make the breadcrumbs take approximately 1/2 loaf of bakery day old sourdough bread (you need enough to make 2 cups) and cut it into 2 inch strips. Bake for 10 minutes in oven at 400 degrees until golden. Grind in food processor until blended but not too fine. Set aside. Then melt the butter in a small saucepan over medium heat. Cook for a few minutes until the butter is fragrant, and has turned golden. Wait a few, then stir the breadcrumbs into the browned butter.

Transfer the squash to a large mixing bowl. Add the potatoes and two-thirds of the oregano sauce. Toss until everything is well coated. Add the cheese and half of the bread crumbs and toss again. Taste the zucchini and add more seasoning if needed.

(Note: Quantities are approximate on layering. The size and slicing of layered vegetables may vary so just use your judgement as you layer – it’s possible you’ll be left with extra veggies)

Starting at one end of the baking dish, lay a row of slightly overlapping tomato slices across the width of the dish and sprinkle with a little of the cheese. Next, lay a row of zucchini, overlapping the tomatoes by two-thirds, and sprinkle with cheese. Then add layer of potato. Repeat with a row of squash, and then repeat rows, sprinkling each with cheese, until the gratin is full., top with the remaining crumbs and sprinkle with parmesan, and bake until well-browned all over and the juices have have reduced and have been bubbling, 60 to 70 min. If the breadcrumbs start to get a little dark, take a fork and scrape them lightly to rotate less cooked bits. Remove from oven, and drizzle lightly with the remaining basil sauce. Let cool for 15 to 20 minutes prior to serving.

- recipe from

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