Rich yet healthy zucchini, basil and mozzarella recipe

This summer, my sister, Mary Pat, traveled to Italy on a bike tour. One of the advantages of biking through Italy is that you can eat anything and everything you want and not worry a bit about the calories. Turns out, my sister’s favorite dish was actually a healthy dish of local zucchini, tomato sauce, basil and fresh mozzarella.
It was served to her in a generous square like lasagna, but instead of noodles, the layers were made up of thinly sliced zucchini.
Once she got home, she started experimenting and re-creating what she ate from taste memory and of course she told me about it! It sounded so simple, yet so delicious that I had to try it. I have now made it three times and decided to write it down and pass it along since there is still so much beautiful zucchini and squash available in the farmers markets. Better yet, in most towns, you can buy good zucchini all year long.
This is one of those dishes where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. This dish has the simple flavors of Italy tomatoes, basil and mozzarella layered between thin slices of zucchini but the end result is positively addicting. Once you make it, you will find yourself making it again and again like my sister and me. It is savory and just rich enough to be crave-able but light enough that you feel like you are eating a dish straight from the garden.
My sister urged me to add tomato paste to the crushed tomatoes to make the sauce thicker and the tomato paste also makes it more flavorful and robust. I added some seasonings to compliment the vegetables including granulated garlic and herbes de Provence. If I had had a mixture of Italian seasonings, I may have used that instead. Either will work equally as well as they both typically include basil, rosemary and thyme.
I also added shaved Parmesan cheese to each layer as it adds a “meatiness” or umami that contributes to the savory nature of the dish.
Before you assemble the dish, you must slice the zucchini with a mandoline and salt it to remove the excess moisture. The slicing of the zucchini, and prepping it for the casserole is a little time consuming but it is well worth the effort. It helps reduce the amount of liquid that cooks out but it also seasons each slice of zucchini making for a perfectly balanced dish.
If you’ve made zucchini before without any salt, you know that it has a tendency to be a very bland vegetable, so this step is important. You also need to rinse the excess salt from the squash or the dish will be too salty. And, you need to dry the zucchini.
The beauty of this dish is that you can make the dish in advance and bake just before serving, or make it and re-heat it. It’s just as good re-heated as it is freshly made.
This weekend, I made the Zucchini Gratinato and served it with beer-can chicken and cornbread, it was a dinner that delivered on taste, but was easy on the cook and that is my favorite way to eat and entertain!
MY SISTER’S ZUCCHINI GRATINATO
Start to finish: 2 hours
Special equipment: Mandoline or V-slicer
3-4 large zucchini
1 Tbsp. olive oil
1 cup unseasoned crushed tomatoes
3 Tbsp. tomato paste
½ tsp. herbs de Provence or Italian seasoning
½ tsp. granulated garlic
½ tsp. coarse salt
1/8 tsp. ground black pepper
¾ ounce fresh basil or one large sprig
1 large ball of fresh mozzarella, about 1 pound
2 ounces fresh Parmesan cheese, shaved with a vegetable peeler
Clean and trim zucchini, you can use a combination of yellow squash and zucchini if you like.
Using a mandoline or a v-slicer, slice all zucchini into thin rounds. Sprinkle with kosher salt as you fill a 3-quart colander with the slices. Let sit for 30 minutes. Some liquid will drain out of the colander so place in a clean sink or put a dishtowel under the colander.
After 30 minutes, run cold water over zucchini slices for several minutes and toss zucchini with your hands to make sure all layers are rinsed. Wrap rinsed zucchini in clean kitchen towels to dry and drain. Zucchini should be as dry as possible.
Preheat oven to 400 F.
Meanwhile, mix crushed tomatoes with tomato paste, herbs, salt and pepper.
Reserve one cluster of basil leaves for garnish and cut the rest into chiffonade or tear into pieces and set aside. Cut fresh mozzarella into slices and squeeze between paper towels to absorb excess moisture. Tear into pieces.
Begin laying process by coating the bottom of a 9-by-9 baking dish with olive oil. Lay down squash in an even layer about 3 deep and make sure the layer is even.
Spoon one-third of the tomato sauce on squash and spread evenly. Scatter basil, a third of the mozzarella and a third of the parmesan cheese over squash. Repeat layers two more times. The top of the zucchini gratin should be the tomato sauce, basil and cheese.
Cover casserole with foil and bake for 15 minutes covered.
Remove foil and reduce oven temperature to 350 F. Continue baking for another 45 minutes or until bubbly and the cheese is brown.
Let sit for 10 minutes and garnish with the reserved basil leaf. Cut into squares.
Servings: 9
—Nutrition information per serving: 182 calories; 107 calories from fat; 12 g fat (7 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 32 mg cholesterol; 393 mg sodium; 8 g carbohydrate; 2 g fiber; 4 g sugar; 11 g protein.
—EDITOR’S NOTE: Elizabeth Karmel is a barbecue and Southern foods expert. She is the chef and pit master at online retailer Carolina CueToGo.com and the author of three books, including “Taming the Flame.”

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