August 15, 2009
In defense of the humble zucchini

harvest2009.jpgZucchini are the rabbits of the vegetable world. In the spring you plant three of four little seeds and suddenly in late July you realize you have an ever increasing mountain of vegetables. When I was growing up, it was a running joke in the summer months: don't visit Grandma because she won't let you leave without a huge bag of zucchini! My mother used to grow them, until she realized that it wouldn't keep my grandmother from trying to offload her surplus on us anyway. It was the stuff you literally couldn't give away. On top of the problem of sheer volume of produce, there was also the lack of imagination in what to do with it. My grandmother included it in her steamed vegetable mixes, which today I would probably quite like. But at the time all I noticed was that it got all slimy and tasteless. And she usually included celery in the mix, which overpowered the poor zucchini. She also made zucchini lasagna, which was lovely - but not something you'd want to eat three times a week. Especially in the Chicago suburbs in the summer: you do NOT want to turn the oven on when it's already over 100 degrees in the shade outside. And zucchini bread. We all loved Grandma's zucchini bread - in the winter. Again, not so fond of turning on the oven in the summer. So zucchini was a real conundrum and a bit of a joke.

Over the last 15 years, though, my perspective on zucchini has changed a lot. For one thing, I moved to the city, where you are in little danger of having unwanted vegetables forced upon you. For another, I met some beautiful classic zucchini dishes: French ratatouille and Catalonian escalivada, which is in some ways like a drier, meatier version of ratatouille. I started experimenting with this versatile vegetable and I learned to love it.

So now we are at the height of the zucchini season and I'm aware that in much of the world, zucchini disposal is still something of a problem. I thought I would share a few ways to address the glut:

1. With the wisdom of years, I am now convinced that part of the problem was that my grandmother was too greedy. Well, not really greedy, perhaps, so much as "too proud of her gardening skills". She - and everyone else I knew back then - never picked a small zucchini. They always let them grow and grow to the size of small baseball bats, by which time the skin was a bit tough, the inside woody and bland. What a revelation it was to me when I arrived in France and saw beautiful small courgettes with their tender skin and full flavor. Seriously, if you pick your zucchini when it's half the size, logically you'll have half the weight to deal with. And it will have twice as much flavor.

2. Use the wealth of information at your fingertips (literally) to find new recipes. My mother and grandmother relied on their various cookbooks (many of them community based and very reliant on cans of mushroom soup and cake mixes) and friends for recipe ideas, a relatively small pool. Today, you have a gazillion food blogs like this one and celebrity chefs falling over themselves to give you free recipes. I've done a quick search on our database and just a few of the ideas include: Grilled Summer Vegetable Salad with Roasted Garlic Dressing, Pasta with Vegetables and Goat's Cheese Sauce, Warm Zucchini and Tomato Salad, Pesto, Pasta and Summer Vegetables, Green Eggs and Ham (a great one for small Dr. Seuss fans, and incidentally zucchini makes a lovely base for baby food too) and of course my most recent post below, Spicy Zuke Soup. This is just a smattering of the results on our site alone. There are a lot of great zucchini recipes out there: it's a lovely sweet vegetable when treated with respect. Grill it. Grate it. Roast it. Just don't steam it with celery, please.

3. If all else fails - and even with a wealth of great recipes, it can - PRESERVE IT. Last year, I wrote about being deeply affected by Barbara Kingsolver's book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. Take a leaf from her book and save the vegetable that is over-abundant now for the cold winter months. Zucchini can be canned with a pressure cooker, but even more easily - it can be frozen. Wash it well, slice it or cube it and blanch it in boiling water for three minutes exactly. Then plunge it in ice water for a further three minutes, drain well and pack it in freezer bags. The result will not give you delicate summer salads, but it will enhance your curries, stews and soups. My favorite soup, the one I make on average twice a month through the winter months, is best with a generous helping of zucchini. This year, thanks to the 2.5 kg of cubed zucchini waiting in my freezer, I won't have to feel guilty about buying it out of season to add to my soup all winter long. I have also frozen grated zucchini in two-cup bags, following my grandmother's practice: perfect for a mid-winter loaf of zucchini bread. And lastly, there is the ubiquitous Zucchini Lasaga. I'm sure most families have a version of this old standby. My mother and my cousin collated all my grandmother's recipes into a home-published cookbook for the family and I used her recipe (with a few small departures) to make a double batch this week. One for us now, and one for the freezer. Fast food for the winter months!

A note on the photo: despite all I've written above about the prolific nature of zucchini, a less than stellar summer, combined with a less than stellar cat-sitter (who did not water the plants as promised) meant that I personally only harvested one zucchini this year. But the woman who runs the local organic farm is delighted that I'm such an enthusiastic buyer. And they are cheap!

Grandma Kehoe's Zucchini Lasagna

My Fannie Farmer cookbook has a clever suggestion for when you are making a casserole specifically to be put in the freezer: line your baking pan with tin foil or saran wrap before freezing, so that you can, once frozen, lift the casserole out, put it in a freezer bag, and use the baking pan for other dishes. Then when you are ready to reheat the casserole, remove the wrapping and pop it back into its original baking pan. Clever, no? This recipe makes enough for two nine inch square pans. Four WeightWatchers points per serving, if you divide each pan into six servings. It would be less if you can find low calorie mozzarella. It exists but was not in stock when I was shopping for this dish.

Note: if you are very brave and have a mandolin slicer, it can be invaluable in creating perfectly uniform thin slices of zucchini to resemble the lasagna pasta. I say brave, because of course you can't fit a zucchini lengthwise in the feeder which protects your fingers. Proceed with caution and at your own risk!

2 1/2 lbs (1.1 kg) approx. zucchini, well washed and thinly sliced lengthwise
400 g ground beef
10-12 tomatoes, chopped
2-3 cloves of garlic, pressed or very finely chopped
1 tsp dried basil
1 tsp dried oregano
2 c. low fat cottage cheese
2 eggs
1/2 cup dry bread crumbs
2 mozzarella balls

Cook the zucchini in boiling water for four minutes, then drain well. A colander will not do it: you will probably need a couple of dish towels to get out most of the water. Brown the ground beef. Add the garlic, tomatoes, salt and herbs. Beat the eggs in a small bowl and stir in the cottage cheese. Slice the mozzarella as thinly as humanly possible. (If you are not watching your calories, you might want to use three balls for two pans of lasagna and not skimp quite so much.) Lay one quarter of the zucchini in the bottom of an 8" or 9" pan. If you cut the slices very thinly, you may want to do as I did and lay two layers in alternating directions. sprinkle one quarter of the bread crumbs evenly over the zucchini, then one quarter of the cottage cheese, one quarter of the meat sauce and half of a mozzarella ball. Repeat. Then repeat the whole process with the second pan (having first lined it with tin foil or plastic wrap if you want to remove it afterwards). Bake at 350F/180C for around 30 minutes, or until heated through, bubbly and brown on top. Allow to rest at least ten minutes before serving.

If you freeze the second lasagna, you can follow the same instructions for reheating from frozen - just be sure to test the middle with a knife to make sure it is heated through before serving. If the top begins to brown too much before the middle is heated through, cover it with a piece of brown paper bag.

Posted by Meg in Sussex at 11:15 AM | Comments (3)
August 3, 2009
Spicy Zuke Soup

spicyzukesoup.jpgThis was supposed to be a nice minestrone soup. The summer rain was pelting down on the roof of the conservatory and the Critic had just phoned to say that he was coming home from work early as he had the flu. I looked at my selection of fresh summer vegetables and started skimming the cookbooks and decided minestrone would be the perfect use for my seasonal vegetables. According to Marcella Hazan, I would need tomatoes (check), garlic (check), onions (check), zucchini (check), borlotti beans...no check. Or, rather to be precise, no cooked beans and the dried ones in my cupboard would take too much time to prepare. Never mind, I thought. I'll just pop down to the village shop. They have everything there. Everything but cans of Italian or French white beans as it happens. But the shop did have canned chickpeas, which set my mind off in another direction: Morocco. The Critic isn't overly fond of North African food, but I figured if it was spicy and didn't include couscous (which he can't abide for some reason) he'd never complain. I hurried home and started searching the cupboards for the elusive tube of harissa I knew was lurking there somewhere. And I found it: with a split side, spicy paste oozing everywhere and a sell-by date of 2007. Good heavens, the stuff was older than my youngest child!

And so in the end - I chucked the cookbooks and just started cooking. And really, I'm delighted that I didn't have the ingredients I wanted in the cupboard, because the soup turned out delicious: coriander and cayenne spiced the soup without overpowering the sweet tomatoes and zucchini. Chickpeas gave the bowl a satisfying bite and a bit of weight. It was hot, sweet, spicy and full of summer goodness, the perfect foil for a bout of the flu.

Spicy Zuke Soup (makes four bowls at 3 WeightWatchers points each)

When I told the Critic I was making soup for dinner, I did not say "Hey, I'm thinking of making a spicy courgette and chickpea soup." I know my man too well. I told him I was making a spicy tomato and turkey soup. He was delighted as I knew he would be. His face fell, admittedly, when he saw how much zucchini was in his bowl. But he came back for seconds, and not because he was being polite. Use smallish tender zucchini if you can as they will hold up better in a soup and have more flavor than the big overgrown ones. (Use the big ones in zucchini bread, where no one will notice.)

1 Tbs olive oil
1 onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, smashed and then minced roughly
250 g turkey breast meat, cubed
3 tomatoes, cubed
1/2 can of tomatoes (replace with 3 more fresh tomatoes if you have them, but we haven't hit full season here yet)
2 medium zucchini or summer squash, cubed (I had one green and one yellow, which made a prettier soup)
1 chili pepper - medium hot, finely chopped
1 tsp ground coriander
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper (or to taste)
700 ml chicken stock
salt and pepper to taste
1 can (about 300 g) cooked chickpeas (in the US these are often called garbanzo beans)

In a large soup pot, heat the olive oil over a medium flame and then add the onion. Cook for 5-7 minutes until the onions become soft and translucent. Add garlic and continue cooking another five minutes. Turn up the heat slightly and add the turkey. Quickly brown on all sides, taking care to stir frequently so that the garlic and onions don't burn. Don't worry about cooking the meat through, as it will be cooked in the stock as well. Add the zucchini, tomatoes and chili pepper and stir for a moment. Add the spices and cook until they start giving off an aroma. Add the rest of the ingredients and use a spoon to scrape the bottom of the pan if any of the meat or garlic or onions have browned on there. Simmer for 15-20 minutes, or until the zucchini are just cooked through. Taste for seasoning. At this point, I added a tablespoon of lemon juice to balance the sweet tomatoes; you may not need it if your tomatoes are not too sweet. Serve in big bowls with lots of freshly baked bread and sweet butter if you have it.

Posted by Meg in Sussex at 10:09 AM | Comments (3)
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