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zucchini

Getting back in the groove

I haven’t just been neglecting this blog; I’ve also been neglecting the kitchen. I’ve been out of the habit of regular cooking for a really ridiculous amount of 2012 so far, and it’s a little embarrassing.

There are reasons, of course. Work is a big one. In mid-February I was out of town for several days on a trip to another of our offices — no cooking in the hotel room, oddly enough — and in the course of the trip I took on a big project that’s been dominating my work ever since. It’s a good project, though I really can’t say much about it so will not dribble out information, but it’s meant a lot of late departures from the office and some extra busy weekends, plus two additional business trips, all of which cut into cooking time.

My “Jeopardy!” success is another one, oddly enough. My winnings arrived at the beginning of April, and while the bulk of the funds are in savings, went to Kiva.org (you can join our lending team, Friends of Bob Harris), or were used to pay off credit cards and replace our failing home computers, I did indulge in a little bit of restaurant exploration. (We highly recommend neighborhood restaurant Salt & Fat, by the way.) It’s been fun to try a few places we hadn’t been able to afford before, or to treat guests on a few occasions. But in the bigger picture, having some extra money on hand has made it a little too easy to take the lazy option when work ran late again or I got home tired from a day running errands.

This weekend was my first real respite in some time. Recent travel and deadlines had left me exhausted and a bit out of sorts, and I realized that part of the problem was that I haven’t really cooked in weeks and it was driving me crazy. So tonight I hopped back on the bike, as it were, and made a batch of what I’ve come to call my “sneaky zucchini” chili.

ChiliPot

It’s a recipe I’ve come to love. After browning some onions I add a couple of shredded zucchinis to the pot along with a generous pinch of salt, and let them cook for a while, stirring frequently, until zucchini has given up a lot of its moisture and cooked down significantly. Then I add a little more olive oil if necessary, and start to work in whatever other ingredients I’m working with: sausage, garlic, mushrooms, green peppers, spices, anything else I’m playing with, and finishing up with kidney beans, canned crushed tomatoes, and canned whole tomatoes that I’ve cut into quarters. One other key thing I’ve been doing is soaking a few dried chiles in boiling water for about 10 minutes, then chopping them (discarding the stems and as many of the seeds as I see fit to) and adding the chiles and a bit of the soaking water to the pot. That adds a beautiful smoky flavor, and helps ensure that what little zucchini flavor might still be detectable is pushed far into the background. The zucchini adds fiber and a bit of body but is essentially undetectable. Though I don’t consider it deceptive because I’ve never tried to pass it off as chili without zucchini in it.

ChiliBowl

My work project continues, but I am hoping to get back into more of a cooking habit. I do have some vacation time coming up, which should give me a chance to try new things, and the neighborhood Greenmarket opens in about a month. If nothing else I can get back into the habit of making salad and pasta; tomatoes can’t come in soon enough for me.

Vegetable-rich chili, and a personal note

ChiliCooked

So it’s finally really winter in New York. I tend to be very dismissive of New Yorkers and how much they whine about the weather. Ooh, it’s so cold out, they say when it’s 45, and I think, It’s January! It’s supposed to be cold! Get over it! And then we get a day where the temperature never rises above freezing and the wind whips down the avenues and I think, maybe I’m being too mean. And say, doesn’t chili sound good for dinner?

ChiliIngredients2

I need to place a Penzey’s order. The Penzey’s that was in the Grand Central Marketplace has been replaced by some more expensive boutique spice shop, and my days of picking up high-quality spices at a low price on the way home are over. So I’m out of the really good chili powder, but as I browsed through my spice shelf I remembered that I have several dried peppers. Perhaps I could make up the deficit with those. I put a dried cascabel, a dried ancho, and a dried chipotle into my Pyrex measuring cup and poured on some boiling water, and let the peppers sit while I chopped up the rest of the ingredients. When I thought the peppers had soaked long enough I chopped them up; I discarded most of the seeds from the cascabel but kept them from the ancho and chipotle. I saved the soaking water (pouring some over the chopped peppers) in case I needed more liquid later.

CookingZucchiniAndOnions

I browned some onions in olive oil, then added garlic and two small zucchinis, shredded. I sprinkled on some kosher salt and sauteed them for a while, until the zucchini was lightly browned and had cooked down quite a bit. I then began adding my other chunky components: chicken sausage, mushrooms, green peppers, and kidney beans. For chili I like to use one large can of crushed tomatoes and one large can of whole tomatoes; I cut the whole tomatoes into chunks before adding them and their juice to the pot. I added the chopped chiles and a small amount of the soaking water, plus some lesser chili powder, some cumin, some coriander, and some epazote. I brought the pot to a simmer, covered it, and let it cook for about half an hour.

ChiliToSimmer

When I uncovered the pot I steamed up my glasses. Ah, the joys of finally starting to wear glasses full-time at age 44! Once the steam cleared I stirred the pot and saw that the chunks were tender and the liquid had thickened slightly. The chili smelled rich and smoky, but not too spicy; I considered adding a bit of Tabasco but decided not to, thinking it would be fine without the added bite. I stirred in some chopped scallions and spooned up bowls for me and Scott.

ChiliToFreeze

The chili was terrific; the chili peppers had given it a depth of flavor and a smoky tone, but not too much heat. (The chipotle was pretty small; maybe using two or three would have heated things up.) The slow simmering had taken the tart edge off the tomatoes and had allowed the shredded zucchini to effectively disappear into the liquidy base. We couldn’t really see zucchini shreds but we enjoyed the body they gave the chili. I’ll definitely keep using rehydrated dried peppers, perhaps experimenting with a few other varieties. And next summer I want to can some Greenmarket tomatoes for use in winter soups and stews.

I’m probably not doing the cooking again until at least Wednesday. Scott is in charge of homemade pizza tomorrow, and on Tuesday night we’re having a party at the office to watch me compete on “Jeopardy!” That’s right: In November we went out to Los Angeles for taping, and have been sworn to secrecy ever since, but on Tuesday everyone will finally get to find out how my (first?) episode went. So tune in!

Moosewood Restaurant Low-Fat Favorites: Light Veggie Goodness

zucchini saffron pasta

PastaPlated2This is the pasta dish that I meant to make yesterday but saved for this evening. A good choice, as it turned out, since it was even hotter today and very stuffy. Last night’s hour-by-hour weather report forecast storms coming in by 4 pm, which would reduce the heat only a little but improve the air quality considerably. As of 9 pm there is no rain, but the pressure is SlicingZucchini2enough to make one’s head explode. The cats are sprawled in the hallway, sniffing at faint breezes. The kitchen is cooling down from the baking I did earlier (I never said I was a smart planner). So a light and easy pasta dish was just the ticket for tonight.

I’ve used Moosewood Restaurant Low-Fat Favorites often in the past. ZucchPastaIngredsI had to dig a bit to find something I hadn’t already tried. Chili burgers? Been there. (Mash beans with grated carrot, oats, ketchup, and a few other odds and ends, and pan-fry — surprisingly good.) Seitan fajitas? I haven’t actually made that one but Scott has. Quinoa black bean salad? Already tried it, but thanks for the reminder — that will be good this summer. I turned more SaffronThreadscarefully to the pasta section and realized that I’ve flipped past zucchini saffron pasta before because it calls for saffron.

Ah, saffron, luxurious and expensive spice. The stigma of a crocus, saffron is known for its rarity and its intense color. I’ve often substituted turmeric, which doesn’t quite match the flavor or color but costs considerably less. OnionsZucchInPan2But as it happens, I have some saffron on hand, since I bought a jar for the Indian food I made in December, when I knew substitutions would not be right. A little saffron goes a long way, and while a jar with what looks like a modest number of thin red filaments seems expensive, you’re going to be able to do a lot with it. The per-use price may not be much worse than that of SaffronWatervanilla.

This dish is fairly simple. I did my vegetable prep first, juicing a couple of lemons, slicing some zucchini into rounds, mincing some garlic, and slicing a large onion. Then I put a pot of water to boil for the penne pasta. While that heated, I sauteed the garlic and onions in olive oil, then added the zucchini. When the onions VeggieMixture2were translucent and the zucchini had started to brown a little, I crushed some saffron threads — or tried to, anyway — and mixed them with some water, then poured that into the pan. I rinsed the saffron bowl with the lemon juice and poured that into the pan as well, added a bit of salt and pepper, then lowered the heat and covered the pan to continue cooking while the penne finished.

PastaInBowl2When the penne was cooked, I drained it and poured it into a large pasta bowl, then added the vegetable mixture and stirred it well so the chunks were evenly distributed and everything was a pleasant, warm, golden color from the saffron. I grated on some romano cheese and served it up.

This dish is delightful. The saffron PastaBowlCheese3gives it a rich and unusual flavor, which is accentuated by the brightness of the lemon juice. It was ideal for a hot, sultry evening.

Verdict: Success. This goes on the list for as long as I have saffron left — which ought to be a while.

Two at One Blow: Moosewood Cooks at Home, CIA Vegetables

spaghetti with zucchini and lemon, Moosewood Restaurant Cooks at Home

Brussels sprouts with mustard glaze, Culinary Institute of America Vegetables

FettuciniInBowl3This is not the first time I’ve made more than one blog recipe at once, but I think it’s the first time I’m combining two books’ worth in a single post. I’m doing it because the recipe I chose from the Culinary Institute of America book isn’t quite enough to warrant its own post, though the book itself probably is. I could have made many more elaborate things from this book, and intend BrusselsSproutsto do so in the future: corn chowder with chiles and Monterey Jack, spinach salad with marinated shiitakes and red onion, and chiles rellenos all beckon, but none of the more elaborate dishes fit with this weekend’s constraints, which were to make something not overly time-consuming and to buy as few additional groceries as possible. Brussels sprouts with IngredsForPastaNBrussmustard glaze, on the other hand, sounded tremendous, but not sufficient for dinner.

So I flipped through Moosewood Restaurant Cooks at Home, which is a 1994 offering from the famed vegetarian restaurant in Ithaca, New York (I’ve never been, but I do have a Moosewood apron courtesy of a former boss). I wasn’t finding much to fit the bill BrusselsSproutsTrimmedthere either, and was beginning to seriously consider the possibility that I was just being picky and distracted. My usual approach to such picky distraction is to make something I know by heart (chili-rubbed chicken, anyone?) or to propose a trip to the diner, but I thought I had better try to master my lazy impulses — and avoid falling even further behind on the blog — and make something BrusselsSproutsCookinganyway. Spaghetti with zucchini and lemon seemed appealing, if not perfectly seasonable, and I knew it would be easy to get what I needed. I even had a box of long pasta just waiting for use, so it seemed perfect.

The Brussels sprouts would make a great side dish for a traditional dinner, and they’re really easy. I rinsed the sprouts, trimmed the MustardSaucehard ends, pulled away any loose or yellow leaves, and cut an X in the stem end of each. Then I cooked them in boiling salted water for about 10 minutes, after which I drained them. I was a little afraid they’d get too soft, but they were just right — tender and bright green. Then I heated some vegetable broth and some grainy mustard (the grainiest I found was still rather less grainy ZucchSlicesthan what was pictured in the cookbook), and simmered the mixture briefly to thicken it, then tossed the sprouts in the glaze and served them.

The pasta was a little more involved, though not by much. I sliced some zucchini into rounds, minced some garlic, cut some basil leaves into thin strips, juiced a lemon, and grated a fair bit of CookingZucchiniRomano cheese. Then I brought the water to boil for pasta. The recipe calls for spaghetti or linguini, but the long pasta I had on hand was fettucini, and I decided it was close enough for my purposes. Once the pasta was in the water I heated some olive oil in a skillet and sauteed the zucchini and garlic. As you can tell from the picture, I had a bit more zucchini and less skillet AddingLemonNBasilthan would have been ideal, but with some judicious turning I was able to cook the slices pretty evenly without managing to knock an unreasonable number out of the pan.

When the zucchini was a bit browned, I added some salt and pepper, then the lemon juice and basil. At this point I pulled the pan off the heat, and the fettucini PuttingItAllTogetherwas just about done too, so I drained the pasta and mixed everything together in a pasta bowl, adding the cheese at this point as well. One drawback of the long flat noodles is that it is tricky to evenly mix a chunky vegetable mixture with them; perhaps the spaghetti or linguini would have been more suited, though not by much. When I had it as well combined as I thought I AllMixedCloseup2could manage, and the cheese had begun to melt and distribute itself pretty evenly, I dished it up.

The Brussels sprouts were tasty. I like their bitterness, and I was a little afraid the mustard sauce would make them overwhelming, but it gave them a different kind of savory balance and worked quite well. The pasta was delicious as well, with the lemon FettuciniInBowl2juice giving the zucchini a brighter, fresher flavor. The dish is probably better suited to late summer, but it was quite welcome on a snowy Saturday night. The two dishes were good complements, with the bitter edge of the pasta balancing the mellower zucchini and rich cheese.

Verdict: Success. I’ll definitely make both again, and I will make a special effort to pick up the CIA Vegetables book again when the Greenmarket is in full swing.