Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Farmer Jo Tackles Zuchinni

Lately I have been trying to get back to grass roots eating. No, not literally, you won’t see me chomping on grass, but I am cooking from scratch more and more often, using only fresh ingredients and avoiding prepackaged foods. I love to cook, so this is more of a pleasure than a chore. Unfortunately, this can be an expensive way to eat, especially on a freshly-out-of-college, quasi-adult budget. My saving grace has been farmer’s markets and my backyard garden.

Nearly every city has one, and here in Portland, there’s a market in nearly every neighborhood all summer long. Here local farmers display piles of rosy tomatoes, fragrant herbs, glistening berries, pink cheeked peaches, and crispy greens, all at terrific prices. Music from local bands enlivens the scene, and tastes from local bakeries and shops keep your energy up as you peruse the booths. As an added bonus most of the produce is grown pesticide free — making it extra good for you and the Earth. The end of my shopping trip finds me weighed down with bags overflowing with fruits, vegetables and fresh bread.

Last Saturday I noticed a box filled with oversized zucchini with a sign over the top that said "Stop World Hunger, Plant Zucchini". They were free for the taking; how could I say no?

In August, zucchini tend to take on a life of their own. Whether you have vines threatening to overrun your yard or overly generous neighbors who leave baseball bat sized zucchini on your doorstep while you’re sleeping, there’s a good chance that you actually have a zucchini or two in your kitchen right now. The great thing about these lovely green summer squashes is that you can do almost anything with them. Slice ‘em, grate ‘em, grill ‘em, or sauté them. They taste great. Well, unless your zucchini is the aforementioned baseball bat size. The bigger they are, the more bitter they tend to be, but there’s no need to toss out those monster-size zucchini. Hollow them out to bake in them, use as a soup tureen, or get a little creative and carve yourself a sculpture to use as a lovely centerpiece.

So by Saturday afternoon I was faced with the question of what to do with all of my free zucchini. There’s always zucchini bread, but who hasn’t eaten that? I wanted to try out some new, fresh-tasting healthy summer fare. Flipping through my cookbooks, I discovered that most of the zucchini recipes suggested grating zucchini into fatty bread batter, deep frying zucchini, or stuffing it with meat.

I have to admit, I dream about having a cooking show. More the Nigella Lawson than Emeril. I talk to myself, hubby, and my pug sidekick, while I cook. "Ah let us throw in a little bit of this, or that. It will be divine!" On my imaginary cooking show I have a few goals. I want to be able to identify each ingredient I use. If I can get it fresh, all the better. I would rather use fresh tomatoes than canned (unless I can them myself, but that’s another story). I want to use local or organic produce, meats, and dairy whenever I can. And I want it to be simple enough that the real flavor comes out. I also want all my recipes to taste good and be incredibly healthy. Since none of the recipes in my cookbooks sounded at all appealing, or fit with my policy of healthy simple eating, I decided to experiment.

So I began to work with what I had in the kitchen: tomatoes, herbs, garlic and a family history of good cooks. I turned on a fan, opened a bottle of wine and got to work.


Zucchini Sautéd in Olive Oil

2 tbsps. olive oil
1-2 medium zucchini sliced into ¼ inch thick rounds
2 crushed garlic cloves
Handful chopped fresh parsley
Juice of half a lemon
Salt and Pepper

Heat oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add garlic and zucchini and sauté for about 5 minutes until the vegetable is tender. Remove from heat and add parsley and lemon juice (to taste). Season to taste with salt and pepper. Best served hot.

What could be better than tomatoes with zucchini? Tomatoes, zucchini and cheese! I found this recipe in a cookbook a few years ago, but it was much heavier, starting with deep fried zucchini pieces. Not the fresh and healthy taste I am now going for. So instead of frying, I figured we should bake the whole thing instead.

In a 9"x9" pan create layers with zucchini, garlic, tomatoes and dill. Top with olive oil and bake this baby. You can top it with feta or freshly grated parmesan. You could use American cheese too I guess, if that is what you are into.


Baked Zucchini, Tomato, and Cheese
1-2 medium zucchini (sliced into ¼ inch thick rounds)
2–3 large ripe tomatoes (thickly sliced)
¼ cup fresh dill (about 3 T dried dill)
4 garlic cloves (sliced)
Pepper and Salt
Olive oil
¼ cup parmesan (optional)
½ cup feta (optional)

Oil the bottom of a 9"x9" inch pan. Spread a layer of zucchini evenly on the bottom. Top each piece with a slice of garlic, a generous sprinkle of dill, and a shake of pepper. Top that with a layer of tomato slices, drizzle with olive oil and shake on some salt. Continue these layers until you have used all of the vegetables. Drizzle the top with oil and bake in a 400-degree oven for about an hour until the liquid is mostly evaporated. While still hot top with cheese, if desired. Serve hot or cold on top of rice or couscous for a full meal.


If you really were the recipient of an overgrown zucchini and you’re not artistically inclined enough to create a sculpture, or don’t feel the need to play vegetable baseball in the heat, then this is a good recipe for you. This dish, unlike the others, doesn’t taste like zucchini. It tastes like crab cakes. These are not only great hot from the pan, but throw one of them between some bread with a thick slice of tomato and you have yourself an amazing sandwich.

Savory Zucchini Cakes
2½ cups grated zucchini
1 beaten egg
1 cup bread crumbs (toast up old bread and throw it in the food processor)
½ cup minced sweet onion
3–4 tsps. Old Bay Seasoning*
2/3–1 tsp. salt (depending upon how salty you like your food)
½ cup flour (you might need more)
approx. ½ cup olive oil

*(look for old bay seasoning mix in the herb and spice section of your supermarket, or near the seafood)

Combine zucchini, egg, breadcrumbs, onion, and spices. Shape into patties about the size of the palm of your hand. Pat patties with flour. This will help them keep their shape. If at this point you are covered with floury glue and zucchini, congrats, you are doing it right!

Heat a skillet over medium-high heat and add a thin layer of oil. Cook the patties until golden brown. They work best cooked in small batches and kept warm in the oven until ready to serve.

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