This is true peasant cooking. Which means, essentially, “What-have-I-got-in-the-fridge” cooking. It’s in the tradition of folks all over the world who rummage through their root cellars, vegetable crispers, and bread boxes to summon forth delicious, hearty, nourishing meals for their families out of what may seem like nothing.
True, this isn’t a soup made from garlic and water or a salad pulled together from chunks of stale bread – both of which are venerable European peasant recipes. But it is a delicious, warming vegetarian meal (or hearty side dish), perfect for a cold snowy evening, rustled up from what I had on hand: a sack of potatoes, a can of tomatoes, onions and garlic, odds and ends of cheese, and a heel of bread.
With the starchy, filling potatoes playing against the vibrant tang of tomatoes and the crisp, rich, salty bread-crumb-and-cheese topping, this casserole is comfortingly simple, yet more than the sum of its parts. With a salad or some bread and perhaps a glass of wine, it’s a meal fit for a king.
Peasant Casserole of Potatoes, Tomatoes, and Cheese
Serves 6 Time: 1 hour 45 min Hands-on: 45 minutes
2 pounds yellow or red-skinned potatoes
1 medium onion, sliced
4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
4 large cloves crushed garlic, divided
1 can (14 oz) best-quality diced tomatoes (I prefer Muir Glen)
1/2 cup chopped fresh herbs (or 1 tablespoon dried)
2 ounces flavorful cheese (I used Asiago and Gruyere)
1 slice bread or 1/4 cup breadcrumbs
salt and pepper
Slice potatoes 1/4 inch think. Parboil in well-salted water for 5-10 minutes, until beginning to soften and become pliable. Drain and set aside.
Heat oven to 375 degrees.
Saute the onions in a tablespoon of olive oil. When the onions are soft and beginning to brown, salt lightly. Stir in three cloves of garlic and turn off the heat. Set onions aside.
Pour tomatoes into the same skillet. Stir in remaining clove of garlic. Bring to a boil and let simmer gently until needed.
Spray a large baking dish with cooking spray and drizzle with 1 tablespoon olive oil. Layer in about half of the potatoes. Drizzle with 1 tablespoon olive oil, salt lightly, and grind on a good amount of pepper. Top with herbs, then with onion mixture. Layer in remaining potatoes. Pour on tomato sauce. Cover casserole with a lid or foil and bake 30 minutes.
Coarsely grate cheese, then bread (unless you’re using bread crumbs) and mix together in a small bowl. Remove casserole from oven. Take off lid and sprinkle cheese-crumb mixture evenly over casserole; drizzle with the final tablespoon of oil. Return to the oven, and bake uncovered 30 minutes or until top is golden brown and crisp, and a knife inserted into the casserole meets very little resistance.
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