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September 2007

Russ Parsons's Braised Zucchini with Mint and Lemon


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.

One Veg, Two Veg


Ooh, let's get the unpleasant stuff out of the way first, shall we? I mean, with a picture like that starting things off, I can hardly expect you to stay around for more than a second or two. So I'll be brief.

Grilled (or broiled, as the case may be, because I'm currently so enamored with my broiler - in the wall! Not low near the floor and close to creepy-crawlies and other horrors! Easy on my back! And therefore my new best friend! - that I am making everything I possibly can in there) radicchio, sliced thinly and dressed with a warm balsamic-honey-mustard dressing, contrary to what you might think, is actually pretty vile. I had such high hopes - I love radicchio and I love slaws, but this? Was a bitter, sweetish, slimy mess that Ben and I took one bite of and then politely shoved to the sides of our plates. I don't know if a different kind of dressing might have helped, or if keeping the radicchio raw could have salvaged this thing, but the fact of the matter is that we threw out the entire dish and I don't mind one bit.

(We had the juiciest, reddest tomatoes, thickly sliced and strewn with flaky salt and a zucchini frittata, cooled to room temperature, to keep us happy. Oh, and the tiniest sugared strawberries (in August still!) that we ate before bed while contemplating our couch situation. It is a situation indeed. The strawberries helped. But we're still nowhere.)


And because, as many of you know, summer wouldn't be anything if there wasn't a constant glut of zucchini clogging your crisper drawers and your shopping bags and your kitchen counters and your stovetop, we've been eating zucchini like they're going out of style - steamed and broiled and raw and frittataed. And even, now, stuffed.

You hollow out several halved zucchini, then fill them with a light and fluffy breadcrumb mixture that's seasoned with anchovies and basil (I did ours with olives and parsley, as Ben's an anchovy-hater and I have sworn up and down never to deceive him with a hidden anchovy, though I am totally convinced that if I did melt a little one here or there into our meal he would never know and would proclaim dinner a delicious, savory success, but I am a good person and an even better girlfriend (well, at times) and so I cannot and would not ever do such a thing, hence the olives). You then lay the stuffed zucchini on a pool of tomato sauce studded with capers and bake them in the oven until the zucchini are tender and juicy and the breadcrumbs are browned (have I impressed upon you the necessity of making your own breadcrumbs? You must. So much easier and better than the storebought, bagged kind.). We ate these last week with our first corn of the year (why have we waited this long? possible insanity) and lamented the fact that there weren't more.

If I may make one little note, it's that I would have packed down the breadcrumbs a little more - Russ says that you shouldn't because they get pasty, but in my estimation that's not necessarily a bad thing. If you leave them too light and airy in the zucchini, they then sort of explode on your plate later, leaving a shower of crispy breadcrumbs all over the place and you with your fork and knife, chasing them down like a rat catcher. But to each his own. Either way, you should probably double this dish, since they'll be gone in no time.

(You might end up with leftover breadcrumbs, so I advise you to keep them around, in the fridge is fine, and when you're in dire need this week of a simple, quick pasta dish, boil up some spaghetti, reserve that starchy pasta water, heat up the crumbs in olive oil and toss them all together, moistening the dish with pasta water and adding some grated Parmigiano for good measure.)

Garlic and Herb-Stuffed Zucchini
Serves 2

2 tablespoons olive oil, plus extra for drizzling (optional)
1 onion, minced
4 cloves garlic
1 (28-ounce) can crushed tomatoes
1/2 cup white wine
3 tablespoons capers (or 12 pitted Nicoise olives)
1/2 pound baguette
1/4 cup loosely packed, coarsely chopped basil leaves (or parsley)
2 cloves garlic, chopped
4 salted anchovy fillets, rinsed, bones removed and chopped (or 10 pitted Nicoise olives)
1/3 cup toasted pine nuts (or toasted almonds)
3 - 6 (8-inch) zucchini

1. Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Cook the olive oil and the onion in a large skillet over medium heat until the onion softens, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic; cook until fragrant, about 3 minutes. Add the crushed tomatoes, wine, capers or olives and one-half teaspoon salt. Simmer until the sauce thickens, about 20 minutes.

2. Trim the crusts and cut the bread into cubes. Place in a food processor or a blender with the basil or parsley and garlic and grind to fine crumbs. Pour into a bowl and stir in the anchovies and pine nuts, or olives and almonds. Set aside.

3. Cut each zucchini in half lengthwise and use a melonballer to carefully remove some of the flesh from the center to make a "canoe." Leave about one-fourth inch at the sides and ends and a little more at the bottom.

5. Pour the tomato sauce into a lightly oiled 5-quart gratin dish or substitute two smaller gratin dishes. Spoon the breadcrumb mixture into the zucchini, mounding slightly on top. If you don't like pasty breadcrumbs, do not press the breadcrumbs down too much. Arrange the zucchini in the gratin dish. Drizzle with olive oil if desired.

6. Bake until the vegetables have softened and the tops of the breadcrumbs have browned, about 30 minutes. Serve hot or at room temperature.

Nigel Slater's Fennel and Olive Salad


I have been eating an alarming amount of cheese lately. Pecorino sardo, a fat baton of which plus five water crackers made my dinner the other night, a snowy, fresh goat cheese eaten at sundown on Sunday night with a nice red wine, a wondrous English farmhouse cheddar that tasted faintly of pears studded with crystals of salt, a Pont L'Eveque set out on the counter, growing stinkier by the minute. I don't know what's come over me. Cheese is usually just a brief punctuation in my meals - a light dusting of Parmesan on pasta, a thin sliver of a nice blue while I cook, just to keep my mouth watering, or a little slice after dinner, to keep Ben company or because I've foregone dessert.

I'm not sure if it's the heat, or the disorientation I still feel from the move. Suddenly, cheese for dinner has become an awfully convenient meal. Plus, we've got a cheese store now, one that smells like the underground cheesemonger my mother used to take me to in Berlin, before prosciutto and mozzarella became household words, when Italy still was a faraway, exotic land, even to the Germans. We'd walk down a set of rickety stairs to an underground lair, cool and stinky, where an old Italian man would gesticulate and talk wildly, selling olives and cheese and cured meats and blocks of dark chocolate, wrapped in wax paper that my mother would store in the cupboards and grate over my yogurt some mornings, shards of it flying around the kitchen table, delighting me to no end.

Our cheese shop in Forest Hills has that similar chill and that old, familiar funk. There are St. Marcellins, wrinkled and gooey, milky mozzarelle from Italy, dusty salamis, and raw milk cheese from France. There are fragrant olives in bins and crusty loaves of bread by the door. Something about standing in this store, the pickled herring in the refrigerated case, the German chocolates on the shelves and the smell that reminds me of another time and place, makes me feel warm and comforted and recognized somehow. Plucking a bag of mozzarella di bufala from its watery bucket feels like second-nature.

At home last night, I thumbed through Nigel Slater's Kitchen Diaries, alighting on a simple August meal he made for himself of grilled fennel and mozzarella. It sounded irresistible. I sliced a bulb of fennel thinly and broiled it on both sides, until the edges were charred and crispy and the fennel was sweet and mellow. In a bowl, I stirred together olive oil, some pitted Nicoise olives and a handful of fresh parsley leaves. The broiled fennel went into the bowl, the heat releasing the aromatics in an invisible puff. I piled the salad on a slice of broiled, garlic-rubbed bread and slid half a mozzarella ball alongside it.

The salad? Un-Be-Lievably Good. Like, This-Is-The-Only-Way-I-Might-Ever-Eat-Fennel-Again Good. It was sweet, salty, grassy and herbal, it was chewy and crispy and soft and even a little prickly, when a parsley leaf got in the way. It was, in a word, perfection. But the mozzarella got left in the dust. It was too waxy, too sour and just not right for the symphony of flavors going on beside it. I forked the rest of my cheese over to Ben's plate and concentrated happily on the remaining salad.

Which is really just as well, as I think my waistline was starting to swell. I'm sort of relieved that the salad broke the cheese spell. And as long as I can eat salad like this every night for the next week, I don't think I'll even miss that other stuff.

Fennel and Olive Salad
Serves 4

2 medium-sized heads of fennel
5 tablespoons of olive oil
24 black olives (I used Nicoise)
1 small bunch of flat-leafed parsley
2 balls of mozzarella di bufala, optional (if you do buy these, only the best, please)

1. Heat a grill or a broiler. Slice the stalks and fronds from the bulbs. Slice the bulbs into thing slices, no thicker than 1/8 of an inch. Grill or broil the fennel, letting it color first on one side, then the other.

2. Pour the olive oil into a bowl and add the olives. Pull the parsley leaves from the stalks and add to the olive oil with some salt and pepper. Take the fennel off the grill or broiler and drop it into the bowl. Toss gently.

3. Divide the salad among four plates. If using, split the mozzarella or slice thickly, then lay the pieces on top of the salad. Drizzle remaining dressing over the cheese or add a little more olive oil.

Summer Savory


1. The gas company came, they inspected, they left. My gas line is free and clear and there's nothing to worry about. They couldn't explain the boom and popping cabinet, but said maybe a spider got stuck in the gas line and that's what obstructed it? Okay, sure, whatever. As long as I can keep cooking.

2. Henry Chang's Drunken Chicken, aside from being the most charming recipe name I ever did hear, is quite delicious. Unfortunately, I have no photographic evidence for you because precisely around dinnertime last night, I realized I had misplaced my camera battery charger and with my camera's battery completely out, I couldn't take photos. Fortunately, the chicken was so completely unattractive that it's just as well. (I found the charger ten minutes after dinner. Right in the spot where it should have been in the old apartment, but that I figured was no place for checking since this is a new apartment and you know, new apartment, new rules.) Unattractive, yes, but it was also delicious and furthermore, totally delicate and subtle. As you pop each piece of cold chicken in your mouth and chew, you realize that the wine-broth-ginger-scallion marinade, while certainly imbuing the chicken with some flavor, has more than anything concentrated the real chicken flavor, so that each bite you take becomes an explosion of the most chicken-y chicken flavor you've ever had in your mouth. Quite remarkable, really.

3. Is anyone else as fascinated with Chinese food as I am? I'm not talking American chop suey or even Moo Shu Chicken. I'm talking the real thing. When I read Nicole Mones's The Last Chinese Chef I had to restrain myself from chewing the pages. The descriptions, not just of the food, but of the legend and lore behind each dish were enough to make my mouth water in real time. It is a minor tragedy to me that Ben is one of those people in Nicole's article who knows only one kind of Chinese food, the stuff apparently called "meiguorende kouwei". He finds it oily, over-salted and over-sauced. He doesn't believe me when I tell him that Chinese food, the stuff that Chinese people eat, "zhongguorende kouwei", can be artful and light and bursting with flavor. Now that we live here, closer to Flushing's Chinatown, I'm on a mission. So tell me, readers, are there any places in particular I should take him to? Tell me your favorite dishes, too.


4. My books are back! After two weeks in boxes, I finally unpacked my books last night. Here are my cookbooks in all their glory. I thought a kitchen made a home, but it turns out that books do, too.

5. One of the secrets of my kitchen arsenal is a little jar filled with dried summer savory. In German, summer savory is called Bohnenkraut. Because the Germans know - this stuff on green beans? Delicious delicious delicious. But it's good on so much more, too, like this salad I made on Sunday night. I'll admit, I was stumped by the only vegetables in my fridge that night: beets and cabbage (from my CSA). But after I sliced them up fine, sprinkled them with savory and dressed them with a sharp vinegar dressing and some flaky salt, the salad was gobbled up in no time.

Beet and Cabbage Salad
Serves 4

2 beets, boiled and cooled
1 1/2 heads of Early Jersey Wakefield Cabbage (or 1/2 head of regular green cabbage)
1 teaspoon dried summer savory
olive oil
white wine vinegar
flaky salt

1. Quarter the beets, then slice them. Quarter the cabbage, then slice it finely. Combine the two in a bowl with the summer savory. Pour in 2 parts of olive oil to 1 part vinegar, sprinkle in a judicious amount of salt. Toss and taste, adjusting the savory, salt and vinegar as you go.

Donna Deane's Apricot Tart Brulee


Okay, fine, I'll admit it. My new kitchen scares me. I'm intimidated, by the old stove that spits fire and smells of gas, by the unlined cabinets, filled with my familiar things, yet still dark and different and cavernous, by the linoleum floor and Formica countertops that hide crumbs and dirt and make me feel a little obsessive-compulsive when I find myself running my hands over them again and again (I guess I'm a little paranoid), by the intense pressure in the faucets that sprays water over the backsplash and make me feel like the sink controls me and not the other way around.

The rest of the apartment still looks like someone just moved in, but the kitchen's been done since day one. Last weekend, after the movers left, and before Ben arrived, it was so satisfying to unpack all the plates and glasses and baking dishes and pots, arrange them just so in their new hiding places, hang pot-holders on this hook, a linen cloth from that one. My requisite bottle of olive oil stood sentry next to the stove, the cereal found its place above the fridge, my forks and knives were laid quietly in their nest, awaiting deployment.

With the kitchen done, it doesn't matter that all of our books are still clustered in boxes and nothing's hung yet on the walls. I can make us meals and we can share them and that's what a home is. Of course.

Except, how do I explain a kitchen that, despite being filled with my things - the cloths and cutting boards from Berlin, the familiar packages of rice and pasta, the pots that follow me from apartment to apartment - feels so totally foreign? I walk into the kitchen, stand at the counter for a bit, fiddle with the lone onion sitting in a little brown dish, open the cabinets and close them, then walk out again. Gemma, upstairs, asks me to come watch the baby for a few minutes and I flee, relieved that I don't have to think about cooking or the kitchen anymore. Later that night, when Ben's home and there's nothing prepared, we eat cereal with cold milk and Ben falls upon some cheese and olives, ravenous. I feel silently guilty.

The next day, I decide to buck up, to gather myself and make this kitchen mine. We're having dinner with our friends and I've promised to bring dessert. I scan through the few recipes that aren't being held hostage in boxes and settle on an apricot tart. Seasonally appropriate, not too challenging, just right. The crust comes together nicely, easily, and is especially pleasing because I don't need to use the food processor. When acquainting yourself with a new kitchen, I find low-tech is the way to start.

Then I turn on the oven, brand-new and digital and placed at eye-level so I don't need to stoop to retrieve things from the hot interior and the broiler no longer resides so perilously close to the kitchen bogeymen. A few seconds after the oven is lit, there's a frightening, low boom and the cabinet blows open. A smell of gas fills the air. I turn off the oven, grab my keys and head downstairs to find the super. I realize my heart is racing and my ears are ringing. I think that buying ice cream and cookies for dessert will be just fine. And I'm relieved. That's the worst part.

But as it turns out, nothing's wrong with the oven. The super turns the oven on and off, gets down on his knees to inspect the gas line hidden in the cupboard, fiddles with a few knobs, then shrugs. He can't explain what happened and leaves with a kind smile and a pat on my shoulder. As I stand alone in my kitchen again, I think I know what's going on. I'm being tested. By my kitchen.

With gritted teeth, I turn the oven on again, roll out the nubbly dough, parbake it, fill it with apricot halves and a vanilla custard. Diced butter goes on top (though I'd skip this next time) and then sugar is sprinkled over everything. An hour or so passes while all of this is happening and though I'm keeping a wary eye on the oven and the cabinets and the Formica and the floor, everything seems to go according to plan. The custard sets gently in the oven, the apricots swell and then wrinkle, the crust toasts and darkens, the apartment fills with the scent of baking. I wash dishes and wipe countertops, pull the tart out and slide it into the broiler drawer, feel myself moving seamlessly from one task to the next.

Under the broiler, the thin sugar layer on the tart blisters and caramelizes. I take the tart out to cool and survey my kitchen. It's clean and quiet. My hands are warm from the oven, there's a bit of dough stuck on my index finger and my watch is dusted with a thin film of flour. The house smells good, the sun is setting, Ben's on his way home with a bottle of champagne and toilet paper (oh, to share these tasks, it's glorious), my neighbor's playing piano and I stand still in the middle of the kitchen, calm.

Can it be? That I've gained control of my kitchen with this tart? I don't know if it goes that quickly, but it's a step in the right direction. Suddenly, a weekend full of meals to prepare doesn't seem so bad. We've got two lunches, two dinners, a guest or two, and I can't wait to get started.

(That tart? A huge, huge success. I'm not sure I should admit this, but between the four of us, we finished the whole thing. The apricots, tangy and juicy, are a perfect foil for the subtle vanilla custard and the nutty, crunchy, buttery crust. Bookmark this one, people. It's a keeper.)

Apricot Tart Brulee
Serves 8

1¼ cups flour
1/2 cup toasted blanched almonds, ground fine
9 tablespoons sugar, divided
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons (1¼ sticks total) cold butter, divided
1 egg yolk
1½ teaspoons vanilla, divided
1 cup plus 2 to 3 tablespoons whipping cream, divided
7 to 8 apricots, cut in half and pits removed
2 eggs, slightly beaten

1. Heat oven to 375 degrees. To make the crust, combine the flour, ground almonds, 3 tablespoons sugar and the salt in a bowl. Cut one-half cup cold butter into small pieces and work it into the dough with your fingers or a pastry cutter until the dough is crumbly and evenly combined but not pasty.

2. Combine the egg yolk, one-half teaspoon vanilla and 2 to 3 tablespoons whipping cream. Make a well in the center of the flour mixture and pour the egg yolk mixture in. Use a fork to quickly stir until the mixture can be formed into a ball. Gather the dough into a ball and knead several times to blend the ingredients. Form into a ball again; wrap it in plastic wrap and chill 30 minutes.

3. Roll the dough out on a well-floured surface to about a three-eighths-inch thickness. Lift the dough into a 9-inch tart pan and gently press it into the bottom and up against the sides to the top edge of the pan; remove any excess dough. Chill for 30 minutes.

4. Line the pan with foil, then fill halfway with pie weights. Bake the tart shell for 15 minutes. Remove it from the oven and lift off the foil and pie weights. Prick the bottom of the tart shell with a fork and return the crust to the oven. Bake until lightly browned, about 10 minutes. Remove the tart shell from the oven and cool on a wire rack. Reduce the heat to 350 degrees.

5. Arrange the apricot halves pitted-side-up in the tart shell. Combine the remaining whipping cream, the remaining vanilla, the eggs and one-fourth cup of the sugar. Gently pour this custard over and around the apricots. Dot the tops of the apricots with the remaining 2 tablespoons butter. Sprinkle with the remaining 2 tablespoons sugar.

6. Bake until the custard tests done in the center, about 35 to 40 minutes. Place the tart under the broiler until the top is browned, about 30 seconds or less. Remove the tart from the oven and cool. Serve warm or chilled.