Things are going great at Travis Jean Cooking School in downtown Macon, where I hang my hat (and apron!) as Culinary Director and Cooking Class Instructor. The classes are great fun! I want to inspire folks to have a blast in the kitchen and truly enjoy the entire process of cooking and baking. And I want to pack as many recipes into my classes as time allows. Classes are a whirlwind of activity — and as one of my class students once commented, “dinner and a show!”
There is a lot of work that goes into a class long before the students arrive: researching and writing my recipes, sourcing and shopping for all ingredients, prepping all the ingredients, setting up the classroom, etc. I rely greatly on a sous chef (or two, sometimes more) to assist me. My true sous chef, Dennis Shema, (retired Air Force lieutenant colonel) has been with me for over 15 years. He is my dear friend and companion in the kitchen and I couldn’t ask for anyone better to assist me. But Dennis isn’t always available. He has a full-time job at Robins Air Force Base, is happily married and is the father of several special needs rescue dogs. He is a pilot (who owns his own airplane), he’s an avid herb gardener, is involved with Warner Robins Little Theater and is very active with church activities. I can’t believe he has any time to spare. Not only is he my best buddy in the kitchen he is truly an officer and a gentleman!!
When Dennis isn’t able to assist me, I rely on others. All of my sous chefs (a.k.a. class assistants) are amazing help and I couldn’t do the classes without them. Well, I could and have worked solo on occasion, but it all runs so much smoother with great help. My sincere thanks goes to Chef Karen Sturgeon-Brown, Rachel Vaughn and Brianne Bower, as well as Abigail Pierce (now back at the University of Georgia), who pitch in to help. I have been so blessed with class assistants who truly enjoy and are passionate about cooking.
Two of my most dedicated assistants are Chris and Andrew Brooks. You all probably know what a fabulous photographer Andy is, but he is equally talented in the kitchen. We make a great team. We were recently invited to their home to enjoy and evening of cooking together. Can’t think of anything better than sharing an evening with great friends and great food.
What an inviting welcome to enter their home with delicious aromas already wafting around the kitchen. Chris had prepared an appetizer of Summer Vegetable Gratin (a recipe from America’s Test Kitchen). It was an amazing dish, as beautiful to look at as it was to eat. And what’s even better is Chris sent us home with the leftovers. That’s what friends do, right? They share.
Not that the dish wasn’t perfect, but I decided to put my spin on the recipe (cutting out a few steps and changing it up a bit) and I’m sharing my recipe with you. This is such a timely recipe because all of the ingredients are in season and easily available: summer yellow squash, zucchini, sweet onions, tomatoes and fresh herbs. I top this layered beauty with a blend of crunchy breadcrumbs and Parmesan cheese. OMGosh! It is sooooooo … good! It easily stands alone as a vegetarian dinner or use it as a side dish, serving it with grilled chicken, fish or shellfish. But don’t forget a good loaf of fresh-from-the-oven baked bread. You’ll want it to soak up every single drop of rendered goodness.
These are some of the greatest pleasures in life: good times, great food and true friends. And I am richly blessed with all. Thanks be to God.
SUMMER VEGETABLE GRATIN
1 1/4 pounds yellow summer squash, thinly sliced
1 1/4pounds zucchini squash, thinly sliced
1 1/2 pounds tomatoes, thinly sliced
1 pound sweet onions, peeled, cut in half then thinly sliced
4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
Kosher salt or sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
OLIVE OIL & HERB SEASONING:
4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup minced fresh shallots
1 tablespoon minced fresh garlic
1 tablespoon minced fresh thyme leaves
1 cup unseasoned Panko (Japanese bread crumbs) or homemade breadcrumbs
1 cup grated fresh Parmesan cheese
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2-4 tablespoons thinly sliced fresh basil
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Place yellow squash in a mixing bowl. Drizzle with 1 tablespoon olive oil. Arrange in a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Repeat process with zucchini and tomatoes. Roast in the oven for 12-15 minutes. Remove from oven and set aside. Meanwhile, in a large skillet, saute onions over medium heat in remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil. Cook until crisp tender and slightly browned. Arrange layers of vegetables in greased 13 by 9 by 2-inch baking dish, first the zucchini, then the yellow squash, then the tomatoes. Scatter the onions over the top. Combine the ingredients for the olive oil and herb seasoning. Drizzle evenly over the layered vegetables. Place dish in the center of the oven and bake for 30 minutes. Meanwhile, combine the ingredients for the topping. Remove dish from oven after 30 minutes and evenly distribute the topping over the vegetables. Return dish to the oven and bake for an additional 10-15 minutes, until top is golden brown and crispy. Garnish with basil just before serving.
Serve as a vegetarian entree or as a side dish, especially good with grilled chicken, fish or shellfish. Serve with crunchy bread for catching all those delicious veggie juices and seasoned olive oil.