Recipe: Zucchini Sformato with Marjoram and Thyme
I have a love-hate relationship with the now year-long availability of fresh herbs. All those little plastic cases open easily enough but then are impossible to close. And the perfect herbs inside seem somewhat embalmed, their aroma faint, as if they landed from a far off planet. I use them because I need them. I vividly remember watching my father, in late August, harvest the last of the basil from his backyard garden, pulling the leaves from their woody stalks. He’d lay them out on our patio table, on squares of waxed paper, the leaves single file, each one covered with kosher salt, top them with a sheet of aluminum foil, and roll them all up into a bunch of tight tubes. I had never seen him perform anything so finicky. Into the freezer they’d go, until around Christmas, when he’d open a package and pull out a few of the now almost totally black leaves to throw into a pot of tomato sauce. A hint of summer. That was pretty damned charming of him, but also kind of sad. The leaves were terrible to look at. They did, strangely, smell like basil. It was always a shock to breathe that in during winter months. I can now buy plastic boxes of basil in January, if I want to. I can make basil pesto then. But I never do. Some things are sacred.
I’ve got great looking basil growing in my stoop pots right now. Other Mediterranean herbs such as fennel, marjoram, thyme, and mentuccia, oddly, also grow very well in Manhattan (go figure). I’ve dedicated my summer to trying out new herbal combinations. Marjoram mixed with thyme, I’ve discovered, produces a taste like a gentle, floral, and more complex oregano. It works well with bold dishes such as broiled mackerel, and also in this mild zucchini custard. Give it a try with eggplant, or sprinkled on hummus. You’ll find it a thing of beauty added to a summer tomato sauce. I can’t wait for that.
A little soft butter for greasing the dish
Extra-virgin olive oil
A few slices of fatty prosciutto end, diced
4 medium zucchini, cut into thin rounds
A big pinch of sugar
1 summer onion, cut into small dice
2 summer garlic cloves, thinly sliced
The grated zest from 1 small lemon
8 large sprigs of marjoram, the leaves chopped
8 large sprigs of thyme, the leaves chopped
⅓ cup flour
¾ cup milk
½ cup cream
¼ teaspoon mace
3 large eggs
½ cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
Butter an 11-inch round baking dish (any more of less equivalent size will do fine).
Heat a large skillet over medium-high flame. Add a drizzle of olive oil and the prosciutto, letting it cook a minute or so to release its fat. Add the zucchini and the pinch of sugar. Sauté until the zucchini has taken on a little color (the sugar will help this along), about 6 minutes. Add the onion, and continue cooking until the vegetables are tender but still holding their shape. Add the garlic, and season with salt, black pepper, and the lemon zest. Add half the marjoram and half the thyme.
Put the flour, milk, cream, mace, and eggs into the bowl of a food processor. Add a little salt and pepper. Pulse a few times to mix well. Now add the rest of the herbs and half of the grated cheese. Pulse to blend.
Tilt the zucchini into the baking dish, and smooth it out. Pour on the cream mixture. Scatter on the rest of the grated cheese. Bake until golden and puffy, about 30 minutes.
I like to eat this after about a 5-minute wait, so it’s still quite warm. It goes well with a green salad that contains a few bitter elements such as arugula or dandelion.