Zucchini Balsamella – Zucchini Bechamel

My garden runneth over with zucchini. I know. I’m not alone.

About this time of year the excitement in finding one or several zucchini beneath a canopy of green begins to wear thin. If you’re like some of my gardening friends you take the easy way out and give most of them to friends and neighbors.

Yes, it’s nice to share. But, don’t do it because you’re uninspired.  When I first started this blog I posted two excellent recipes for zucchini:

- Calabacitas con elote – a Mexican zucchini and corn succotash
- Kabak mucveri – Turkish zucchini fritters

And, because I’m a zucchini aficionado, I have a few more recipes coming your way, including this one for zucchini béchamel.

If you’re unfamiliar, not to worry, béchamel is a white sauce made out of a simple roux of butter, flour and milk. It is considered one of the mother sauces of French cuisine. So, when I came upon a recipe for Tortino di Zucchini, a crustless zucchini tart with béchamel sauce in the famed Italian cookbook, The Art of Eating Well by Pelligrino Artusi, I was curious.

Artusi explains that the Italian “balsamella,” is the “. . . equivalent to the béchamel sauce of the French, except theirs is more complicated.” His version omits the French step of cooking the sauce with onion and cloves.

According to many, The Art of Eating Well is the grandfather of Italian cookbooks, treasured by home cooks like the Joy of Cooking is to American audiences – except it dates back more than a century. . . In 1891, Artusi a retired Florentine silk merchant, self-published La scienza in cucina e l’arte di mangiare bene (The Science of Cooking and the Art of Eating Well). It is a collection of recipes from all the different regions of Italy – although it is heavily Tuscan-influenced. The cookbook has been in continuous print since 1894 and was finally translated into English in 1996.

The recipes sometimes have obscure ingredient measurements and scant instructions, which I think adds to its charm. Since most of these recipes were collected from home cooks, it makes sense – a pinch of this or a handful of that.

Since the first time I made the zucchini tart last summer, I’ve modified it significantly for the modern cook. And, I think it has more in common with a casserole than a tart. And, technically my version is a Mornay sauce (since it has cheese). It’s not a quick dish to make, but it is worth the effort. To make it easier, make up the béchamel a day or two in advance and reheat.

The final result is semi-crisp zucchini baked in a creamy cheese sauce that hints of nutmeg. It’s a perfect dish to take to a potluck or for those occassions you’re hankering for macaroni and cheese – but, this one is vegetable based.

Buon appetito!

Zucchini BéchamelZucchini Balsamella

Serves 6

The secret to making a béchamel is not to burn the roux. This is a blond roux, so once the flour and butter have incorporated and begin to bubble, you will cook it for only a few minutes to cook out the raw flour taste – do not over brown it. Also, when you add the milk to the roux, add it very slowly, while stirring. In the event you get lumps in your sauce, reduce the flow of milk and stir them out.

Baking pan: I used a shallow baking pan, which worked fine. But, if you want more bread topping per serving, then use a more shallow pan.

Ingredients

Zucchini

8 cups cubed zucchini, cut into 1 inch pieces

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 large clove garlic, minced

Salt

Pepper

Sauce

2 tablespoons flour

2 tablespoons butter

2 cups milk

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon black pepper

Generous grating fresh nutmeg (about 1/8 teaspoon)

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

1 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano, shredded*

1/2 cup bread crumbs, optional

Fresh parsley, optional garnish

Method

  1. Cut zucchini into one inch cubes. In a large skillet over medium-high heat, add olive oil and zucchini. Saute zucchini until they begin to brown (zucchini should still be somewhat firm). Season with minced garlic, salt and pepper, stir and saute a few minutes. Transfer to at least a 2 quart casserole dish and set aside (uncovered).
  2. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  3. Béchamel sauce: In a small sauce pan (at least 1 quart size), add flour and butter. Turn the heat to medium and use a wooden spoon or a heat-resistant spatula to mix the flour and butter together. As it begins to bubble, make certain to stir thoroughly – wiping the sides and bottom of the pot. When it turns golden-brown (after about 2 to 3 minutes), very slowly trickle in 1 cup milk – while stirring constantly to incorporate. The flour will bubble and expand each time you add milk, stir vigorously to keep from lumping. After you’ve added the first cup of milk, continue adding the remainder of the milk slowly while stirring. After all the milk has been added, add the salt, black pepper, Dijon mustard. Stir for about 3 minutes until it thickens (to a consistency of a thin gravy). It is ready, when a clean spoon is dipped in the sauce, the sauce coats the back of the spoon and it holds a line when you run a finger across.  Note:  If the sauce becomes too thick – add a little more milk; if too thin – add a small piece of butter rolled in flour and cook to incorporate.
  4. Reduce the heat to low, stir cheese in a little at a time until it melts – the sauce will thicken.
  5. Pour the béchamel cheese sauce over the zucchini. Top with bread crumbs (optional). Bake for 25 minutes. If the bread crumbs aren’t golden by then, broil for 2 to 3 minutes – watch carefully, rotating dish until the top is bubbly and nicely browned. Garnish with chopped Italian parsley.

Variation

Vegetables: summer/winter squash, sweet potatoes, green beans or a mix of vegetables

Cheese:  *Typically a Mornay sauce uses half Parmesan plus half  Gruyere or white cheddar

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11 Responses to Zucchini Balsamella – Zucchini Bechamel

  1. Food-G says:

    Andrea, I print almost every single one of your recipes–that means I really want to make it. This decadent zucchini gratin is no exception. Y.U.M.

  2. ricky-ticky-techy says:

    That looks really good….Are there any leftovers?

  3. I grew zucchini plants one year, next to some pumpkin plants. Well, they cross pollinated and I ended up with orange zucchini with a spherical bump in the middle, so they looked like they were pregnant. Very entertaining.

    I love your sauce with all the parmesan. It must be absolutely delicious.

  4. @Food-G: Thanks for the compliments and I think you’ll dig this one too – comfort food!

    @Ricky: Leftovers gone -shared with neighbors and got a unanimous thumbs up.

    @Lynne: So how did those zucchinikins taste?

  5. Interesting. Did you mean cloves or garlic cloves when you mentioned the omission of onions and cloves? Cloves sound a little strong, as nutmeg is the usual suspect in a bechamel.

    Andrea (FFC): Yes, I meant cloves (not garlic cloves). Traditional French versions simmered an onion studded with cloves in the thickened white sauce.

  6. I can never have enough zucchini recipes in my arsenal. But this one is going to be on top for next zucchini dish that I’m going to make.

  7. Andrea: This Zucchini Bechamel is a gorgeous dish. It works as either a main or side and it sounds so delicious. Fantastic supporting images! ;)

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