If we had a garden right now, this would be the weather to enjoy it. We'd sit out there on a sunny evening, a frost-beaded glass of wine in hand, squinting into the sun because our sunglasses are inside and noticing all the weeds which we really should do something about. We could barbecue with gay abandon, firing it up for dinner for two, rather than saving it for a one-off, traipse across the road special occasion. We could eat breakfast out there on bright mornings, and take a sandwich outside in the heat of lunchtime. We'd make ourselves a glass of Pimm's, or a crisp G&T tinkling with ice. A morning coffee. A mid-afternoon glass of lemonade. Any and every occasion could be moved out into the open air.
On those lingering evenings, all food would feel like holiday. We could try a lazy tapas-y picnic of meats and cheeses, some delicately poached fish, or a fiery pasta. We could light candles as the sun went down and stay out until we shiver and the insects become too annoying, then retreat inside and just look out at the garden in the deepening dusk. If we had a garden, that is exactly what we would be doing.
To conjure up that holiday food atmosphere in our sadly land-locked flat, we decided to create a summery vegetable bake just perfect for eating with salad, crusty bread and a glass of rough-but-easily-drinkable wine. Courgettes and tomatoes feel very seasonal at this time of year and even though these ones come from Ocado and a tin, respectively, I know from garden-owning growers that this is the time of year for bumper harvests. Of course, if these were actually garden-grown then the finished dish would taste all the better. Even with supermarket produce, I am convinced that it is the best possible use for a courgette (if anyone wants to prove me wrong, please do feel free to offer a suggestion for us to try).
This is based on one of my mum's recipes so I think the original idea came from Delia Smith (Delia being her kitchen mainstay), but I'm sure we've simplified over the years. It requires a little bit of faff but nothing ludicrous. Like melanzane alla parmigiana, you fry slices of courgette in garlicky oil then layer them with tomato sauce and cheese, before baking in the oven for the all-important crispy top.
Like all these dishes, it's actually at its best after ten minutes out of the oven, when your mouth isn't scalded on the hot tomato juice and you can really taste all the flavours. But I have to admit that we never really have the self-control to hang on to it for that long.
It's bright, summery and simple, and goes surprisingly well with all sorts of meat or fish, or just salad and bread for a flirtation with vegetarianism. I'm sure it would taste nicer eaten outside, but it did us pretty well inside. And at least this way we can still see the telly. It may not be a sunset...but it'll do for now.
Courgette and Tomato Gratin
From a family recipe, probably originally Delia Smith
- 4 courgettes, sliced
- a clove of garlic, crushed
- olive oil
- 1 tin of chopped tomatoes
- a few good handfuls of grated cheese (we used a mixture of cheddar and parmesan)
- whichever herbs you fancy (fresh basil or dried oregano would be the classic ones)
- olive oil, salt and pepper
- a sprinkling of breadcrumbs for the top
Preheat the oven to 180C. Fry or griddle the courgette slices in the garlic and oil until browned on both sides. This may take a while so just put them aside on a plate as you go through the batches.
Then layer them up in an oven-proof dish, starting with courgette, then some of the chopped tomatoes (try not to include too much of the juice), then a scattering of herbs, seasoning and cheese. Finish up with a thicker layer of cheese on top and a few breadcrumbs for a bit of crunch. Bake for around 20-25 minutes or until browned on top and bubbling all around. Eat with something to mop up the juices (bread? mash? pasta?) and imagine you're in Italy.