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Posts Tagged ‘zucchini’

Today on Facebook I posted about the times last summer when my buddy would write to me, having just opened his box from his CSA*, and ask what in the name of all that is holy were these short green fuzzy things. He’d include a photo. (They were okra.)

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These are lumpy yellowish-greenish appley pear things. (Quince.)

Another time he told me about a whitish greenish vegetable with ferny things growing out of the top of it. I told him to slice off a tiny bit, then asked if it tasted like licorice. He did, and it did, and he was so excited to report back. (Fennel.)

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Smells a little like mint. (Because it is—wild mint.)

I find this kind of conversation very enjoyable, so today I extended my identifying services to everyone I know on Facebook. More and more people are buying into CSAs and their spectacularly fresh, local vegetables, but don’t always know what they’re looking at, let alone how to prepare it.

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Sort of squishy streaky purplish things. (Figs.)

In the case of the okra, I suggested he fry them, or make a stew and let them goop themselves out. You cannot thwart the okra when it comes to goop. As I must write, and take pictures of broken things I find on the side of the road, so they must goop. Might as well let it thicken your stew.

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Um, they’re long and covered with dirt. (Fresh horseradish.)

For the fennel, I suggested he shave it thinly with a mandoline and use it in salads. If I recall, he found success with both vegetables, though decided not to try the okra on his two young boys. Ate it up himself. I’m still not entirely sold on it myself. Maybe another year.

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Fat zucchini? (Close enough. Summer squash covers it. I used to know the name, but can’t find it!)

As I posted to my friends, I love the prospect of playing Julie McCoy and introducing someone to a new vegetable. I love helping people to give in to curiosity, and a new way to think, and a new way to cook.

But mostly I love feeling as though I’m giving people accessibility to what the earth gives. I’m such a nerd, I know, but I find it incredibly exciting to come across a new fruit or vegetable, especially if it’s local. And I know at least one other person who feels the same. Maybe it’s because we’ve become so jaded, with information powering at us from all sides, all day and night, and feel as though there’s nothing new to see.

I know digital information can and does make our world bigger, but to me…it’s almost always more rewarding to make it bigger not by looking at a screen, but down at the fertile ground.

*CSA: Community-Supported Agriculture—a great idea. People buy shares in a local farm, and get the spoils of that farm, all season long, as ripe and delicious as can be.

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I read that in some communities you don’t dare leave your car unlocked in high summer or you risk finding your backseat packed to the ceiling with your neighbors’ surplus zucchini. Hit-and-run altruism. Or desperation, take your pick.

Despite the myriad uses people have come up with to use this prolific squash*, a favorite of mine today was a Sunday morning staple when I grew up, simply called zucchini, onions, and eggs.

It’s hardly a recipe, really; like most memorable dishes, it was invented with what happens to be around. Right now in New Jersey it’s this.

Slice zucchini into rounds and saute over medium-high heat in a pat of butter or a good drizzle of olive oil. Turn them when you can start to smell them; that’s a sign they’re speckled with brown underneath.

Chop up some onion and throw it in with the zucchini, stirring often until it’s lightly browned. Hit the mixture with a little salt.

Whisk together some eggs and pour them over the veggies. Add freshly ground pepper and some Italian seasoning, or any variation of fresh or dried basil, thyme, oregano, and rosemary.

If you want to get fancy and have good wrist skills, by all means flip that dude over and call it an omelet. Or just stir gently until set through. I like it lightly browned as well.

There, you’re done. Wait! I just thought of this—a shaving of Parmigiano-Reggiano or Pecorino Romano would be incredible.** That’s new.

I upped my game with the dish this year by using local ingredients and it was so good: zucchini and ‘candy’ red onion from Silverton Farms in Toms River. I also sliced in some of their sweet uncured garlic.

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The eggs were from Wyman Farms, from in county. Then I dressed it up even more by making fries with some of the first of Silverton’s itty bitty fresh-dug potatoes, oven roasted with olive oil and tossed with salt. This is breakfast, lunch, or dinner.

I don’t have a garden. But if you do, let me know and I’ll leave my car unlocked for you.

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* I also read people use them as baseball bats—good for precisely one hit, I’m guessing. I need to stop reading so much.

**Caveat: if you’re at all tempted to use anything that started in a green can, please disregard entirely the above suggestion.

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Leave it to me to milk a season for all it’s worth, but I can’t help it this time around; I just discovered zucchini flowers. I torched them last time (and ate them anyway and regret NOTHING because they were insanely good). This time I did two things: I took a reader’s advice and sauteed them so I could taste them alone, without a filling of any kind, and learned they taste like very delicate zucchini. And I tried the below, another reader’s recipe, as part of my cooking project.

The recipe is second only to a bowl of Frosted Mini-Wheats in its simplicity. Here’s the dish as it cooks…

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And here’s Lou:

I picked up the recipe from a chef talking to a patron from the same area, presumably back East at a breakfast hangout where I live. I believe it’s a classic regional possibly ethnic dish from somewhere and there is a story behind the origin as per their discussion. I reconstructed the ingredients from memory back home.

Eggs Daffodil

A very soft scramble of butter with eggs, zucchini blossoms, scallions and Comte (Gruyere) cheese

Louis Rousseau

Santa Cruz, CA

USA

I snooped around a little online to find other recipes with this title, and found quite a bit, including a vomitizing one that calls for 3/4 of a pound of Velveeta. I did not find one as luxurious as this.

For Lou’s recipe, I picked the blossoms at the organic farm and made this dish for lunch when I got home. Since I have to watch my cholesterol (ugh and whimper)*, I used organic egg whites. But I wasn’t going to exclude the Gruyere; I found an applewood variety and shaved a bit into it here and there. The flowers I rinsed gently under cold water, took out the stamens, and then with kitchen scissors snipped them into julienned strips. Snipped the scallions with scissors, too. Browned the bottom of the eggs a smidge, then added the rest of the ingredients and turned it all over just once.

This dish is ELEGANT. It’s champagne and toast points for the VP of marketing, it’s brunch for Kate and Will, it’s a cheering lunch after you’ve driven an hour out and back to the farm. The cheese lends a smoky richness, and the scallions give crunch and fragrance. Zucchini flowers really do look like daffodils here, as bright and sunny as the summer left behind.

Thanks for this, Lou!

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That’s Gelbstein’s pumpernickel with sesame seeds downstage right. Wonderful and earthy with this.

*Aren’t you impressed? I’ve never had a problem with cholesterol in my life, but now that I do, I summed it up with a simple ugh and whimper and didn’t mourn as loudly and as extensively as I could have, certainly, like going on about it for miles and miles in a footnote that nobody wants to see and has nothing to do with the recipe at hand and in fact distracts from the point.

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A week or so ago I started feeling overwhelmed—by everything, by nothing. All of the details of my life swarmed up and around me and my concentration was like a hummingbird’s: I went from place to place and from thought to thought but couldn’t seem to finish anything. I wasn’t really cooking, either. I kept a bunch of elements—cheese, wraps, vegetables, yogurt—in the refrigerator, but there wasn’t anything prepared, no go-to meals ready for when I was starving at 12:15pm. Each day on my calendar had a list attached of stuff to do, but I still felt as though time was getting away from me, that I wasn’t spending it wisely. And worst of all, I felt like there wasn’t anything I could do about it because I couldn’t settle on one thought for long enough to accomplish anything. It was frustrating to say the least.

And yet…amid all of this chaos, quiet, insistent thoughts nudged me from time to time. They felt like life preservers, ways I could pull myself out of this anxiety. I didn’t know if they really were, because they sounded so ordinary.

I want to bake bread again.

I want the house to feel cleaner.

I want to rest.

One afternoon I decided to find out if these thoughts had any merit. I cancelled everything on my to-do list, and instead I would clean and cook. As I took out the vacuum, I felt a bit of serenity bloom in my chest, sort of wrapping itself around the stress and neutralizing it. That night I made banana bread for my breakfast so I could have a proper breakfast all week. Chopped up a leftover dark chocolate bar into the batter just for fun. As it baked it smelled peaceful—really it did. Homey. And I made enough zucchini cakes to last me the week.

They’re so simple that they’re hardly a recipe: The day before you want to eat them, take a bunch of zucchini, however much you want, green, yellow or both. Wash well of grit (especially if you get them from a farm or a farmers market). Chop off the ends, slice the zucchini into wedges into your Cuisinart, and blitz. Turn the whole thing out into a strainer (or if you have a ton, into a colander set over a bowl). Put it into the fridge to drain. You want it to be pretty dry.

The next day, take it out and add chopped onion, an egg or two, salt and pepper, and a crumbly cheese like feta or ricotta salata. Stir it all up.

Turn your oven to 350. Take out a rimmed cookie sheet and line it with parchment. With your hands, form cakes out of handfuls of the zucchini mixture and place on the sheet. Bake for 15 minutes to half an hour or more, depending on how brown you like them. These are great dipped into hot sauce or left on their own, hot or cold. They’re healthy and satisfying, too.

By the time I went to bed my blood pressure had gone down to a soft beat and I felt delicious inside. Looking back I suppose it was deprivation that had been eating at me, that I had just needed to take care of myself better. I was, and still am, so surprised and happy that peace was accessible, and grateful that something in me told me what I needed to do. I didn’t have to hunt for it in a self-help book (which was good, because I never would have been able to concentrate on it) or try 714 different things at random in the hopes that they would pull me out of my anxiety. And paradoxically, by doing this I ended up getting the rest I needed; it was restful knowing I was in a clean house, and that I had great meals waiting for me.

I am sure I have probably offended some people, probably all of them women, by this account of what I did to make myself feel better. I guess it doesn’t seem like a feminist way to handle stress, that instead I should have been strapping on my attache for a corporate takeover or something like that. But I do consider myself a feminist—hard core. A clean house and a full larder is what worked for me, though I understand it wouldn’t be everyone’s way out. I admire any way a woman (or man, for that matter) is able to regain peace and a personal sense of power. Maybe that’s what the essence of feminism is, after all. Maybe it simply comes down to each woman knowing she has the ability and the right to do whatever she needs to do to get there.

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When the world got to be too much for Holly Golightly, she went to Tiffany’s. Ishmael went to sea. Me, I go to Trader Joe’s just because I know the guy behind the register will take the shopping basket right out of my hand and pack everything up himself. And he’ll grin the whole time, and say the corn chips I am buying are his current addiction.

Sure it’s summer, but that doesn’t automatically mean comfort sits in our laps every day, all day. Sometimes, like today, which must be the 17th sticky, grey day in a row, we need to seek out (or barring that, to remember) the stuff that makes us grin like a Trader Joe’s cashier. Here are some of my favorites.

1) Listening to a farmer describe how she relaxes after a long, hot day at the market: she goes inside her barn, turns on the fan, and cracks open a cold beer.

2) Choosing the tightest, smoothest, rosiest heirloom tomatoes for my favorite summer sandwich: sliced on bread smeared with mayonnaise, sprinkled with salt, and summarily devoured.

3) Watching shaggy-haired groms—that’s pre-teen surfers—skateboarding to the beach with a slice of pizza poised in one hand and a bottle of Coke in the other.

4) Seeing local theatre productions that are big enough to attract extraordinary talent but small enough that afterward you can meet and shake the hands of the actors.

5) Having a teatime treat of cherries (or peaches, or blueberries) with a drizzle of real cream.

6) Visiting a local farm and having your zucchini weighed on an ancient scale.

7) Watching dogs on the beach, wet from seawater, tear up and down the beach as they follow their surfing owners.

8) Going to the boardwalk and being handed a sopping, sloppy hot sausage sandwich with absolutely no pretense.

9) Being at the beach to witness the sunset bathing everything for miles in palest pink.

10) Strolling the midway at the Italian-American festival in Oakhurst, NJ every August for the food, rides and more of my cousins on one acre than anyplace else on earth.

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Peach blueberry pie, Red Bank.

Mid-April. We turn our winter weary selves to the strengthening sun and take deep breaths of the sweet air. The world is yawning, stretching, and growing greener. Another spring.

The predictable sameness of the supermarket isn’t going to cut it this time of year. A farmers market is. Hat, small bills, some cloth shopping bags (French housewives know the stretchy mesh kind are best because they can always fit one more onion), and off you go. Ride that spring momentum.

Like New York City during Fashion Week, the farmers market is a seasonal showcase; specifically, for the local and the just picked. This is what’s in fashion from the earth, right now. Produce sold there is going to be more nutritious, more flavorful, and often cheaper than whatever the supermarket has recently misted with water and glossed with wax.

Young cheese, Red Bank.

This is an opportunity to try stuff you’ve always wanted to, or to try stuff you’ve never even seen before. The blog you’re reading says ‘open your eyes’ at the tippy top for this very reason. If you’ve only ever shopped at supermarkets, going to a farmers market is like entering another galaxy—albeit one right at home—and in the best imaginable way. It’s a way to make your life bigger. Sniff the freshness of lemon verbena now, be dazzled later in the season by the explosion of sweetness in an heirloom tomato. Take in the greens and golds, the deepest, plummiest purples.

One of the best things about farmers markets is of course that they feature farmers. And bakers. And other people who are invested in what they’ve grown or made for you. They’re excited to talk to you about it. Questions are good. (Once a supermarket cashier held up the greens I had put on the conveyor belt and asked me what kind they were. This is not good.) You can talk about butterstick zucchini with the guy who planted it, tended to it, and picked it. This bin of zucchini is his labor of love, not just his job. And the man can give you recipes in his sleep.

Introduce yourself and get his name. After you take the zucchini home and cook it, go back and tell him how much you dug it. Or tell him you fouled the recipe up, if you did. He’ll give you pointers on how to get it right. It’s hard to beat that kind of attention and service.

Local brown and white eggs, Asbury Park.

Collards, Atlantic Highlands.

Ask for a taste. (You can do that there.) Prepare to be surprised. Ask more questions. You’ll find out oddball stuff, like if you add a teaspoon of almond extract to peach pie it will make it celestial. Think about what an almond looks like in its shell and what a peach pit looks like. Pretty similar, right? It’s because peaches (and nectarines, and cherries) and almonds are all cousins. Because of that, they have a natural affinity for each other.

Have you ever bitten into a strawberry that was picked three hours ago? It’s still warm. Chances are it’s also smaller than the ones you’ve seen at the supermarket. Often those are dipped in chocolate—and a good thing, too, because on their own they taste like wet cotton balls. Big strawberries are bred to 1) wow you by their size 2) sit on a shelf for a week. Flavor? Niente.

Taste one that’s small and local. That means it’s bred for flavor, which further means it’s never going to be sold in a supermarket. The farmer grew this variety because he knows he can pick these little guys, pack them in the back of his flatbed and get them into your hands inside a day.

Red cabbage, Asbury Park.

Hot pepper jam, Asbury Park.

If you come across a table behind which stand an elderly woman and her son, and you can’t pronounce their last name, and they make old-style sour rye bread, please buy one.  Ask the woman how long she’s been making bread and why she still does it. She wants to talk about it.

Last summer I met a portly man whose parents taught him to make focaccia and fresh bufala mozzarella, in his hometown of Rome, 50 years ago. I could tell you how good this bread and cheese tasted, but you’ve probably already guessed.

Many of these purveyors are keeping ancient traditions alive. One taste, and both the flavor and the link from past to present will astonish you, bring tears to your eyes if you let it.

Heirloom tomatoes, Asbury Park.

Everyday life can make our heads spin. But farmers markets can bring us back down to earth, literally and figuratively. The growers chatting, your neighbors browsing and tasting along with you, the pooches scooting along beside them—all make a farmers market a bustling place. But paradoxically, it can also give us a sense of peace. The handmade, the homegrown, and the people who offer it have the power to soothe the overwrought spirit as well as to make us feel more alive. It can make us want to stretch along with spring itself.

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December was fattening-food drop-off month at my house when I was growing up. Friends and family descended upon us like the best kind of locusts, and by Christmas, half of the dining room table was covered with butter cookies, fruitcake, and zucchini bread, along with my mom’s additions of apricot brandy-soaked tea cakes and cranberry bread.

The hands-down favorite, I think, was our next-door neighbor’s cake with the chocolate chips and cinnamon. Made by a lovely grandma known for her tendency toward indulgence (redundant?), it soothed every frazzled holiday nerve like a blanket over chilly shoulders.

The bad news: my parents moved. Far enough away that the cake never made it to our new house.

A few years passed. I was working in a nursery school. December rolled around, and on the last day before winter break, the teachers’ room filled up with homemade desserts. I took one bite of the humble chocolate chip cake from the corner of the table, and I had my own Christmas miracle…right there at the Jewish Community Center. It was The Cake. I asked the teacher who made it for the recipe—the hapless woman had to hear the whole story, like you all did—and she very kindly gave it to me. This year I’m baking cakes for my brother and sister.

This cake is homey, but festive, and best of all, it’s a cinch to put together…even this week when we’re all feeling the pressure.

Mrs. Rothbard (that’s the neighbor) and Mrs. Kirk (that’s the teacher), aren’t with us anymore. But the below is a delicious legacy to leave behind.

Sour Cream Cake

In a large bowl, cream together 1 1/2 sticks of butter. Add  1 1/2 cups sugar, 3 eggs, 1 1/2 tsp. vanilla, and mix well.

In a medium-sized bowl, sift 3 cups all-purpose flour, 1 1/2 tsp salt, 1 1/2 tsp baking soda, and 1 1/2 tsp baking powder.

Add flour mixture to butter mixture, alternating with 1 pint sour cream.

In a small bowl, combine 1/3 cup sugar, 1 tsp cinnamon, and 1 small package chocolate chips.

Pour half of the batter into a 9″ square brownie pan and onto it sprinkle half of the sugar mixture. Add the remaining batter on top, and the rest of the sugar mixture on top of that.

Bake at 350 for an hour or so, until a cake tester inserted in the middle comes out clean.

You can make this very successfully with plain yogurt instead of the sour cream. But do go for good-quality chocolate chips. And you know my stance on cinnamon: Saigon rules.

This cake needs nothing. Another of its charms. It’s heavenly served warm, when the chocolate chips are still melty. Cold works too, if you want to put it in the fridge for a day or so. And of course it’s good room temperature, right off the dining room table.

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