First it was zucchini, halved and quartered, steamed until tender, then tipped into a bowl of peeled garlic and chopped parsley and olive oil, served room temperature. Then it was rounds of zucchini, sauteed with garlic until brown and puffy and then mixed with beaten eggs, a drop of milk, chopped mint and parsley and a grating of Parmesan cheese before being baked in the oven. I can't forget zucchini, diced and sauteed with garlic and parsley and finished with lemon juice. Nor will I ever stop loving zucchini, cut into batons and fried in olive oil and anchovies, then finished with balsamic vinegar, raisins and pine nuts. And then, of course, I should note the most recent addition, zucchini stuffed with seasoned breadcrumbs and baked into deliciousness.
Every time I think I've finally come up with my favorite zucchini recipe, another one comes along and knocks that one right off the pedestal. It's kind of frustrating, actually. If you really, truly love something, don't you want to just sit around eating it as long as that first blush of love lasts, making it so many times that by the end you're working purely from memory and the whole thing can be done in your sleep?
Well, yeah, I guess that's not as appealing as it sounds. Besides, in a summer simply stuffed with zucchini - they're popping through the sidewalks, I hear - that's no way to be an enterprising cook. Will you forgive me, then, if I tell you to put all other zucchini recipes aside in favor of this next one? It's just too good not to go to the top of the list, mine and yours and yours.
Braising, I think, must be the best way in the world to cook vegetables. Yes, roasting them can be lovely and sometimes eating them raw can't be beat (on a hot summer's night, a mouthful of bright crunch is just right), but braising vegetables seems to coax out their softest, tastiest flavors. And texturally, that gently slippery quality is just sublime. Pair it with a heel of crusty bread and you've got absolutely nothing to complain about for, oh, 20 minutes or so, or as long as it takes you to clean your plate (mop up the corners, too, there you go).
The Italians, of course, knew it long ago - that cooking your vegetables until they're limp is quite a wonderful thing, provided you know what you're doing. My mother has always complained about my half-cooked vegetables - steamed until they were, I thought, still a nice, sprightly green. "These aren't even cooked!", she'd complain, and push them around on her plate. Ah, but at least they're better for you this way, I'd think smugly to myself. What a pain in the ass. Me, not her.
Listen to my mother. And to Russ. Cook your zucchini until limp and translucent. Dress them with lemon juice and mint. Eat them as you watch the sunset and mop up the juices with some bread. Feel the buttery crunch of pine nuts between your teeth and the faint zing of mint on your tongue. Decide never to cook zucchini another way again. Decide you really mean it.
Good luck with that.
Braised Zucchini with Mint and Lemon
Serves 4 to 6
2 pounds zucchini
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup finely diced onion
2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
Zest of 1/2 lemon
1 tablespoon chopped mint, divided
2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 tablespoons toasted pine nuts
1. Cut the ends from each zucchini, slice the zucchini in quarters lengthwise and then cut the quarters in half crosswise. You'll have large pieces of zucchini about 2 to 3 inches long.
2. In a heavy-bottomed skillet, warm the olive oil and the onion over medium-low heat until the onion softens and becomes fragrant, 3 to 4 minutes. Add the zucchini, the garlic, lemon zest, 1 teaspoon salt, 1 teaspoon mint and 2 tablespoons of water and stir well to combine. Reduce heat to low and cover. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the zucchini is extremely tender and almost translucent, about 25 minutes. There should be some liquid still in the bottom of the pan.
3. Remove the lid, add the lemon juice and increase heat to high. When the liquid begins to bubble, remove from heat and set aside uncovered. When the zucchini is at warm room temperature, stir in the remaining 2 teaspoons mint and the pine nuts, then taste and add more salt and lemon juice if necessary. Serve warm or at room temperature.