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This dish really stacks up

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For Midwesterners who love to eat food fresh from the garden, this is the best time of year. Local gardens are teaming with bright heavy tomatoes, slender green beans, colossal cabbages, a variety of peppers, zucchini almost as long as my arms - all kinds of vegetables - fresh and full of flavor.

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I am getting a few tomatoes and some gorgeous Hungarian and Bulgarian peppers from my own garden, but other than herbs, that's all I can get to grow. I rely on the expert growers selling their harvest at farmers markets and friends who have very green thumbs and are willing to share.

After a visit to a local garden that produced some blue ribbon cabbage at the county fair this year, my car was loaded with edible treasures harvested by hand. I couldn't wait to get home to start eating.

I remembered reading in "Homegrown Pure and Simple" about an interesting method for cooking vegetables. Author Michel Nischan suggests layering thinly sliced root vegetables in a shallow pan, covering that with another pan of the same size and then wrapping it all up in aluminum foil for a long bake. I decided to give it a try.

Since I was cooking just for two, I pulled four gratin dishes from my kitchen drawer, old restaurant ware I found in an antique shop. They were shallow and just the right size to pile up some potatoes, carrots, onion, green beans and cabbage, all sliced very thin and all very fresh. Salt and pepper were the only seasonings I used. A little olive oil coated the pans to prevent potatoes from sticking.

The two dishes that were filled with vegetables each got covered with the two remaining dishes turned upside down. I was reminded of my days as a Girl Scout wrapping vegetables to cook over a campfire, as I wrapped the baking dishes up tight with aluminum foil and put both bundles in the oven. After half hour, I used oven mitts to turn the foil packages and let them bake for another 30 minutes.

Once out of the oven, I carefully unwrapped the packages that were delivering wonderful aroma to my kitchen. I removed the dish covering each Vegetable Stack. I could have served them right in the darling gratin dishes, but decided to follow Nischan's instructions for removing the stack. I placed a plate upside-down over the top of each stack and turned it over, releasing the layers of tender vegetables. A drizzle of aged balsamic vinegar and they were ready to serve.

Of course, if you're baking the stack in a jelly-roll pan, you'll need to turn the baked vegetables out onto a large cutting board, just as if you were turning a sheet cake out of the pan.

There are at least a few things to love about this dish. For one thing, you really don't even need a recipe. Use whatever vegetables you have coming from your garden (or in my case, a friend's garden) or whatever strikes your fancy at the farmers market. It doesn't matter if you're cooking for your family, cooking for a crowd or making a meal for just one or two - choose shallow baking pans or dishes that suit your needs. Season the Vegetable Stack as you wish, but when you are using garden-fresh vegetables, you'll discover salt and pepper are perfect.

'Tis the season to eat, drink and make merry with the bountiful harvest - stacked.

Baked Garden Vegetable Stack

Olive oil, for preparing pans

Salt and pepper, for seasoning

Yukon Gold potatoes, about 2 to 2 1/2 pounds, peeled

Carrots, about 1 pound, peeled

Onion, 1 medium, sliced thin

Green Beans, 5 to 6 ounces, topped and tailed (trimmed), cut diagonally into 1-inch pieces

Cabbage, about 4 ounces, sliced thin

Balsamic vinegar, good quality, for drizzling

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Prepare 2 shallow baking pans or baking dishes that are the same size. Two jelly roll pans (11- x 15-inch) if you are feeding a family or 2 to 4 gratin dishes if you are cooking for one or two. Lightly coat the inside of each baking pan or dish with olive oil. Set aside.

Use a sharp knife or a mandolin to slice Yukon Gold potatoes and carrots 1/8-inch thick, keeping them in separate piles.

Salt and pepper the inside bottom of one pan. Arrange about half of the Yukon Gold potato slices, shingle style, in the prepared pan, covering the bottom completely. Make another layer with all of the carrots, arranging them the same way. Sprinkle the onion slices, green beans and cabbage over the carrots. End the stack with a layer of the remaining Yukon Golds, arranging them shingle style. Push the mixture down with your hands to pack it in to the pan tightly.

Brush olive oil over the top layer and sprinkle with salt and pepper.

Set the other prepared pan upside down over the pan of vegetables. Wrap the pans up tight with heavy-duty aluminum foil to hold them securely together.

Bake in 400-degree preheated oven for 30 minutes. Carefully flip the pans over (be sure to use oven mitts) and bake for another 30 minutes.

Remove from oven. Allow the baked stack to rest for 5 minutes, then very carefully remove aluminum foil.

Lift off the top baking pan. Lay a large cutting board over the top of the baked stack and flip the stack over onto the cutting board. Carefully remove the baking pan. Slice the hot stack into squares or rectangles and serve immediately with a drizzle of flavorful balsamic vinegar.

Tips from the cook

--You can choose any shallow pans of the exact same size. The smaller they are, the easier the removal process will be. When I'm cooking for 1 to 4 people, I love using gratin dishes. But the potatoes tend to brown much nicer in pans. If you try to use deeper pans, the baking time will increase.

--Sprinkle any of your favorite fresh herbs from your garden into the stack. A little bit of thyme is nice.

--Rutabaga, parsnips and turnips sliced 1/8-inch thick are good choices to add to the potatoes in Baked Garden Vegetable Stack. When all root vegetables are used in the stack, it holds together well when released from the pan.

--Baked Garden Vegetable Stack can be eaten on its own or served as a side with grilled pork chops or steak.

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