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Fox Valley Cooks: Batavia mom uses local, seasonal food

Jennifer Downing Bataviadds eggs from her chickens QuinoZucchini-TomaGratmadish casserole.  |  Judy Buchenot~For The Beacon-News

Jennifer Downing of Batavia adds eggs from her chickens to Quinoa Zucchini-Tomato Gratin, a main dish casserole. | Judy Buchenot~For The Beacon-News

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Zucchini-Tomato Gratin

1/2 cup uncooked quinoa, rinsed

4 tablespoons olive oil

3 medium zucchini sliced a quarter-inch thick

3 to 5 large tomatoes, sliced quarter-inch thick

1 medium onion, thinly sliced

3 garlic cloves, minced

2 large eggs, lightly beaten

2 ounces goat cheese

1/4 cup Panko bread crumbs

Cook the quinoa according to package directions and set aside to cool. Coat two large baking sheets with a tablespoon of olive oil on each. Place tomatoes on one sheet and zucchini on the other sheet. Coat vegetables with olive oil from the pan and season with salt and pepper. Be sure vegetables are in a single layer. Roast the tomatoes at 450 degrees for 10 minutes and zucchini for 20 minutes, flipping the zucchini halfway through.

Reduce oven temperature to 400 degrees. Heat one tablespoon olive oil in a large skillet and add onions and garlic. Sprinkle generously with salt. Cover and reduce the heat to low. Stirring occasionally, sweat the onion for 15 minutes until very tender. Combine onion mixture, quinoa, eggs and half of the goat cheese in a bowl. Sprinkle generously with ground pepper.

Coat a shallow 2-quart baking dish with remaining tablespoon of oil. Spread half the quinoa in the bottom of dish. Layer with half the zucchini and remaining quinoa. Continue layering with remaining zucchini and top with tomatoes. Sprinkle with remaining goat cheese and panko bread crumbs. Bake 20 minutes or until golden brown.

On the Web

Read Jennifer Downing’s blog, “In the Yellow House,” at

Also learn about her cooking classes at

Updated: October 17, 2012 10:11PM

Jennifer Downing had a busy career in catering and feels fortunate to have worked with several talented chefs.

“But it wasn’t until I quit working to start my family that I started cooking in earnest,” 43-year-old Downing says.

Coming up with meals to feed four children and her husband is a daily challenge that she has tackled with creativity.

“I seldom make the same recipe twice, and I try to cook seasonal and local food,” she says.

She starts her quest for local food in her own Batavia backyard where she has garden, a beehive and four chickens.

“The chickens lay about an egg a day, so that means about four eggs a day,” says Downing, who has named each chicken and refers to them as “our pets with a bonus.”

Although she hopes to get some honey from her bees this year, her main goal is to simply help keep the bee population thriving.

“Bees are so important to our food,” Downing says. “I just want to do my part to keep them going.”

Downing also focuses on buying foods from local farmers. She often strikes up a conversation with farmers at markets to find out what else they raise and to get gardening advice. These relationships with small-scale farmers have provided her with helpful information and access to great produce.

“I try to cook everything from scratch,” Downing says. “I get tremendous satisfaction to sit down to a meal where I know where everything came from.”

About four years ago, Downing started an online blog to chronicle her food and life adventures.

“My plan was to make it like a scrapbook that I would eventually print out and give to my kids, but then other people started reading it,” Downing says.

She has expanded her blog “In the Yellow House” with more recipes and resources and is pleased to find that others enjoy having “a peek in our front door.” Read it at

One of the joys of cooking for Downing has been sharing her knowledge with others. She has presented workshops on making cheese and sausage as well as different themed meals in her home kitchen and at local libraries, club meetings and park districts. This weekend she and her husband, Doug, are offering “Football Season Smoking,” a class on how to smoke meat. In addition, Downing will demonstrate how to make appetizers and side dishes for fall entertaining. For information about future classes or to book a cooking class for an organization, visit

As fall arrives, Downing is busy canning produce for winter use. She believes in keeping a well-stocked pantry of the basics, including flours, sugar, rice, pasta beans, butter, yogurt, eggs, onions and potatoes.

She also tries to plan ahead for meals. If she has the oven on for one meal, she might roast red peppers for a future meal at the same time.

“Many ingredients can be prepared ahead and refrigerated, which makes cooking go so much faster,” she notes.

Downing encourages everyone to give local farmers markets a try before they close for the season.

“Take $10 and buy a few things. Then take them home and fix them the next day. You will help local farmers keep growing and have a great meal, too,” Downing says.

She offers a recipe for a vegetarian entree, which uses tomatoes and zucchini, two items that are plentiful this time of year.

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Contact columnist Judy Buchenot at

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