Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Gad Zukes!

It's that time of year again. Once more it’s zucchini time, and we're primed for a few good belly laughs. What in the world will we do with all this funny looking zucchini? For starters, I offer some shareable humor poking fun at the versatile yet bland zucchini, the occasional clown, and surely one of nature’s most prolific characters:

Here's a gardener's joke…
How can you tell a person who doesn't have any friends?
He has to BUY his zucchinis! (Snicker!)

Or, how about this second amendment joke…
Beware of dangerous vegetables!
A man in White Plains, N.Y., tried to hold up a bank with a zucchini.
The police captured him at his house, where he showed them his "weapon". (Dark humor!)

My favorite doctor joke…
A guy has celery sticking out of one ear, lettuce out of the other, and a zucchini up his nose. He goes to the doctor and asks him what’s wrong.
The doctor tells him, "Well, for one thing, you’re not eating right."
(Guffaw! ! ) Gad Zukes!

Now without further ado, may I present to you the following variations on a theme and true gustatory delights. Bon appétit!

Zucchini Stuffed with Spinach and Ricotta
Handsome make-ahead accompaniment with pasta

3 medium zucchini
1 tablespoon olive oil
3 green onion, chopped (including greens)
1 large clove garlic, crush
2 tablespoons pine nuts, chop lightly
2 cups spinach, shredded and packed
3/4 cup ricotta cheese
1/2 cup Parmesan cheese, grated, divided
1/2 dash nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper
1 tablespoon crushed mixed seasonal herbs, basil, oregano 1/2 teaspoon salt and pepper each
1/2 cup bread crumbs, divided
olive oil for drizzling

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment.
Cut zucchinis in half, scoop out centers (if unmalleable, the flesh may be softened by placing in microwave for 1 minute).

In small sauté pan, heat olive oil, add green onion and garlic and stir briefly, add the pine nuts, tossing until aromatic; stir in the spinach to wilt. Set aside to cool.

In medium bowl, combine ricotta and about 1/3 cup of the parmesan, stir in the red pepper flakes, nutmeg, and herbs and season with salt and pepper. Add the sautéed veggies, plus about 2 Tbsp bread crumbs or enough to bind.

Sprinkle zucchini halves with salt, mound with filling, and place on prepared baking sheet.
Combine remaining bread crumbs, cheese and a little olive oil to moisten; sprinkle over the tops of the filled zucchini and drizzle lightly with olive oil. Can be make ahead to this point.

Bake for about 20 minutes or until bubbly and tops are golden brown.
Serves 6 ~~

B.L.D. Bars
These tasty treats are great any time, especially Breakfast-Lunch-or-Dessert. They hold well making them the perfect partner for picnics or travel.

3/4 cup butter, room temperature
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 1/2 cups flour

1/2 cup whole wheat flour
1/2 cup oatmeal
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon nutmeg
3/4 cup coconut flakes
3/4 cup dates, chopped
3/4 cup raisins or dried berries
2 cups zucchini, freshly shredded, or reserved from another cause

1 tablespoon melted butter
2 tablespoons buttermilk or milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1 cup powdered sugar
1 cup walnuts, finely chopped, toasted

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line and spray 9x13 pan. Combine dry ingredients and set aside.

Cream butter and sugars, add eggs and vanilla. Stir in dry mixture. Stir in dried fruits and zucchini. Spread evenly in pan and bake 35 to 40 minutes. Cool briefly.

Whisk topping until smooth and drizzle over top, sprinkle with nuts. Cool then cut.
Yield: 24 or more bars ~~

Monday, August 18, 2008

My Blue Heaven

There’s a sign on the highway that taunts me every time I drive past it: “Blueberries U-Pick”. I’m always too busy, too dressed, going somewhere else, always with the excuses. One morning this past week I decide to drop everything and just do it.

The Blueberry Patch is an institution in these parts and families are encouraged to come and spend the day, as evidenced by the number of parked cars that have preceded me. There’s quite an operation in process. It’s the coolest part of they day, and the lemonade stand is already in full swing. Next to it, folks with buckets of berries surround the cashier’s weigh station idly chatting and waiting their turn. In a quiet moment I sheepishly step forward and murmur that I’m new at this, a first timer.

Chuck the manager, clearly has been through this drill many times before. Taking me under his wing, he moves around the stand and reaches for a harness and bucket. In short order I’m fitted with my gear, snapped in, and we are headed out in search of proper picking grounds. I ask Chuck how much the bucket might hold. “Oh, maybe ten pounds,” he calculates and stops at a row. He carefully pulls a loaded branch over the bucket and gingerly loosens only the ripe ones, they fall effortlessly into the bucket. Nice.

“What about snakes?” I nervously ask Chuck as I examine the shady, inviting bushes. Chuck assures me not to worry, his dogs stay busy; he wishes me happy picking, and retreats.

I examine my territory. I am alone amongst 47 acres of tall fat bushes. Where is everyone? Where do I begin? I sample a berry or two; they are plump, juicy and delicious. Wow! I have the necessary incentive to proceed.

Not so easy. I fumble as many of my fattest gems entirely miss the bucket and fall below. On hands and knees, I search out these errant beauties, the ground is scattered with them! How sad… one for me, and one for the pot. I gaze about, it’s a gorgeous setting, the bushes are lush, green, and so tall that they actually provide a bit of cover from the warming sun. I’d love to have one of these in my yard, I muse. My bucket is filling incredibly slowly. I have allotted myself 1 ½ hours for this task and time is passing fast. At this pace, I will be here all day.

With renewed vigor I approach the bushes in earnest and an easy rhythm develops. I smile as I pluck away. I overhear voices and snatches of conversations. A guy is asking his girl friend if she is waiting for the berries to drop into her bucket by themselves! Someone else is talking about their current travel; they’ve been to the hot springs and decided to stop. I hear Latinos chattering back and forth and the clipped sing-song banter of Asians hard at it. I am thoroughly embracing this cultural enclave! The berries are falling into my bucket by themselves, I look down and it is almost full! Done!

I am now an accomplished picker and smartly head to the weigh station, to expedite this matter and wrap it up. The owner is there presiding over the proceedings. He eyes my bucket of effort and heartily congratulates me as he places my loot on the scales. “Nine pounds!” he announces and beams.

I’m impressed too, that’s a lot of berries.

Blueberry Crostata with Hazelnut Streusel
A light free-formed pastry, lemon-scented blueberry filling and hazelnut enhanced streusel

1 1/2 cups flour, less 2 Tbsp
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/3 cup butter, partially frozen, cut into 1/2" pieces
2 tablespoons shortening, partially frozen, cut into pieces
4 tablespoons ice water, or more if needed
Streusel1/3 cup flour, heaping
3/4 cup brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
pinch salt
1/4 cup butter, cold, diced
1/2 cup hazelnuts, toasted, chopped
Berry Filling3 cups blueberries, heaping
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1 tablespoon lemon, zest, grated
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup sugar
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 egg, beaten with 2 Tbsp water

For pastry: Place dry ingredients in food processor and place in freezer to chill. When ready, process 5 seconds to blend.
Add half each of the butter and shortening to processor and toss to coat with flour. Pulse 4 or 5 times, then process 4-5 seconds. Add remaining butter and shortening and pulse 4-5 seconds or to consistency of fine meal with some pea sizes. Add 4 tbsp ice water all at once and just to form clumps, adding more water if necessary. Press into a ball with floured hands and form into 5" disk. Chill 30 minutes or longer. Makes 9-11"shell.

For streusel: In same processor place dry ingredients and pulse to combine; Add butter and pulse to form pea sized crumbs, add hazelnuts,pulse briefly. crumble with fingers to form clumps; and chill til needed.

For filling: Combine the dry ingredients in medium bowl, add lemon juice and toss. Add berries and stir to combine.

To assemble crostata: Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Line baking sheet with parchment.
On floured surface, roll out pastry to about 11-12" circle. Place on parchment lined baking sheet and pile berry filling onto center leaving 1/2-2" border. Sprinkle berries with crumbled streusel, holding a little back. Brush edges with beaten egg and gently fold the edge of dough up and over berries, pleating and sealing to encase berries and form neat secure circle. Fill in with remaining streusel and brush exterior pastry edge with beaten egg.

Bake 25-30 minutes or until blueberry filling is bubbly and pastry is golden, lower heat if streusel browns to quickly. Cool. Serve warm or room temperature. Serves 6-8. ~~

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Aroma Therapy

Odors and scents catch my attention immediately, frequently without any particular awareness on my part. Clearly, the years of professional cooking and multi-tasking in the kitchen have enhanced and refined my sense of smell. The 'whiff test', an essential component in my own culinary tool box, can be the crucial step in averting potential disaster or simply keeping me on track. If food is on the edge of burning, that horrid acrid smell is a toe-curling alarm. In baking with chocolate for example, each degree of doneness has its own fabulous set of aromas. And there’s nothing is better than the perfume of a perfectly ripe peach.

In my new home I am completely captivated by all the deliriously heady fragrances emanating from my hillside and garden. I love deeply inhaling the pungent woodsy odor of our tall elegant cedar trees, each new rose offers its own personal sweetness, and I’m enthralled by the incredible vitality and freshness of lavender. A snip here and snip there, into the kitchen they come and soon the sublime scents of nature waft throughout the house.

As my picked bounties fade all too fast I begin pondering ways to savor them longer, to preserve them. I carefully lay snippets of flowers and herbs about to dry and it’s not long before I have petals and bouquets everywhere. I really need to get this under control.

Voila! Good Fortune arrives via Goodwill in the form of a food dehydrator, sans owners manual.

On line research, input from friends, repeated trial and error, slowly I develop a rhythm of harvesting and drying my lovelies. Obvious here, potpourri is the next magical step in this mysterious escapade. Back to Goodwill, one large storage jar later and I’m in business, all these mystical components merge into a fledgling concoction with personality and character. She is named appropriately after her motherland, Vida Lea Potpourri.
I harvest glorious lavender and decide it is most definitely one of the key elements in my potpourri. I watch the rose bushes like a predator, waiting for the perfect time to capture their essence. In a heart beat lavish bouquets evaporate into small piles of dried petals. I spot tiny cedar cones sprinkled about the yard and gather them up, but hold them in abeyance, hoping for larger prototypes as time goes by. I pluck tendrils of sage which flourishes here, this provocative, musky element is an excellent addition. More dimension is still needed and I invite a few extraneous renegades - mandarin orange peel from Australia and cinnamon bark from my local Market of Choice (!).

Another learning curve, I’m gleaning old collectible cook books and discover that back in the day, essential oils and orris root were used in potpourris to boost and stabilize their scent. I consult my friend Kathleen from my local Farmers Market, who also owns Pioneer Natural Soap Company and specializes in botanical products for the home. Together we create a unique oil blend especially for Vida Lea Potpourri.

I add our oil blend and once a day give the potpourri a good shake to distribute the fragrance. The curing procedure will go on for several weeks before it is completely set. I smile at this remarkable abstract of nature in a jar – a richly scented myriad of colorful shapes and textures. Pure ambrosia.

But wait! There’s an added benefit: by adding our signature oil blend to distilled water, I have instant Vida Lea Aroma Spray! My own personal cloud of lavender, cedar, rose, citrus and cinnamon for linens, beds and clothes!

In theory, it would have been faster and easier to simply dash out and grab a bag or a bottle at the store. Then again, it is all about the process.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Just another Chartreuse Cone Head

This past weekend I dragged home another new friend from the Farmers Market. There, at Macready’s, in a corner all cozied up next to the eggplant lurked a suspicious extraterrestrial specimen – an odd sort, sporting a bumpy, chartreuse green, purple tinged cone head.

“What’s this?!” I squint and puzzle.
“Broccoli Romanesco,” Louise murmurs and continues sorting her tomatoes, “it’s a cross between cauliflower and broccoli.”
As if it was just another eggplant.

No newcomer I learn, broccoli Romanesco has been around since 16th century Italy. These days it is regarded as a specialty crop and rarely appears in the average grocery store – thus, the perfect candidate for farmers markets. Apparently, it has grown in popularity with urban gardeners as well, due to its unusual appearance plus the fact that it can regenerate itself. The gardener need only harvest a required amount, not the entire head, and it will grow back again.

Much later the same day, in hungry deliberation, my refrigerator looks very empty and not much to draw from. Except for a peculiar chartreuse addition. I inspect it and decide it looks neither like cauliflower nor broccoli, besides anything resembling those familiar florets is replaced by quirky spirals. I quickly assess the obvious possibilities. When I think of cauliflower I tend to first consider a curry or a cheesy sauce. Here, curry may mask its flavor and I will never know what I’ve eaten. Moving towards cheesy, I opt to honor its Italian heritage and go for a variation on an old standby, Pasta Carbonara.

I have been preparing versions of Pasta Carbonara for years and it continues to adapt and re-invent itself, depending upon my current financial condition and/or health focus. It is basic enough that I usually have the necessary ingredients on hand and can create a tasty and satisfying meal in no time. Here’s one more evolution that makes an easy one pot meal in less than an hour.

Pasta Carbonara with Broccoli Romanesco

1 head broccoli Romanesco, cut into bite-sized florets
4 slices smoked bacon, in 1/2" slices
1 small onion, sliced into small strips
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 dried red chili pepper, crumbled
3 eggs
1/2 cup Parmesan cheese, grated
salt and pepper
10 ounces penne pasta, or other
Additional Parmesan cheese for garnish

In a large pot, bring salted water to a boil. Cut broccoli into bite sized florets and set aside. In a small bowl beat egg, Parmesan cheese, salt and pepper and set aside.

In medium skillet cook bacon til crisp; remove bacon and drain off all but 2 Tbsp bacon drippings. Add onion, sauté onion til soft and translucent, add garlic and crumbled dried pepper flakes and toss til aromatic.

Meanwhile cook pasta about 6 minutes, add broccoli and cook another 3 minutes, til all are still al dente. Do not over cook. Drain, reserving about 1 cup pasta water. Whisk about 1/2 cup water into to egg mixture.

Remove skillet from heat, add pasta and toss to combine with onions. Pour egg mixture over pasta and toss to coat pasta; add additional pasta water to form creamy saucy. Return to low heat if necessary to set sauce. Sprinkle with bacon and pass additional cheese. Serves 4. ~~

Notes after the fact: I’m impressed! Broccoli Romanesco has a slightly sweet root flavor similar to turnips. It makes a perfect component with the pasta for a quick one dish meal, and it is good match with the creamy cheese and bacon of the Carbonara Sauce. Cooking it al dente, as I prefer most of my vegetables, holds the color and shape nicely. Next time I will bring home a bigger head!


Related Posts with Thumbnails