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

Topping:
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 9×13 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 ~~

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

Pastry
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. ~~

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.

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!

Contemplation on Beets

I’m embarrassed to truthfully admit here that I’ve never cooked a real beet. In my twisted mind I’m thinking, “All that red. What a mess.”

However, my personal challenge this summer is to reach out to lesser known produce, i.e. those I haven’t had a previous kitchen encounter. This leaves a very broad field, since without a nudge I tend to gravitate to the same comfortable options. That in mind, beets came into focus at my local farmer’s market this week and I timidly opted for only 4 – just in case. They sat in my fridge for 2 days as I pondered what to do next.

With all the fabulous fresh fruit lately I’ve gotten into deep dessert overload. In fact, I’ve been seriously contemplating a one day fast – a time to halt, to eat simply and meditatively. Only enough to purify the mind, body and soul: a light salad, a bit of fruit, round it out with lemon tea. A very good idea.

In this salad mode I mused, I could kick it up a notch and take the easy way out with those beets! Feature them raw with some edgy greens, a delicious cheese – perhaps a Rogue River Blue or a Basque P’tit Pyrenees, add sweet tangy Australian mandarin orange wedges, some toasted hazelnuts, maybe a few olives, top it all off with a lovely Raspbery-Citrus or Sherry Vinaigrette. Nice. Well, not exactly a simple salad, and likely more than a days worth.

Of course then, Red Flannel Hash was a real possibility… I love Corned Beef Hash; but it seemed the humble beet would slip into obscurity, overshadowed by those hefty hash partners. Besides, I’m trying to go light here… maybe not.

A friend suggested Borscht and we both tittered at the idea! Borscht? Ha! Now that’s desperately dull, isn’t it? I’m sure I’ve had it before, but it left no memorable impression. And so it went. Until I remembered the Smoked Chicken Stock in the freezer; and then Borscht began to make sense. More research, further contemplation. Thus evolves a soup equally worthy of an all day fast, a feast, or a classy chilled starter course.

Good news! I am relieved to reveal that beet juice is not life threatening, although I carefully donned surgical gloves, just in case. The peeling and chopping proceeded quickly, as opposed to roasting them whole (another consideration), and I was done in no time; all surfaces including my wooden board wiped clean without a trace of red! Into the pot they went along with the other veggies and soup was ready within 30 minutes! Next time I will forget the gloves – and there will be a next time!

This is truly a healthful soup, incredibly satisfying, and a stunning ruby red color to behold. I personally like the texture and identity of the jewel-like vegetables and opted not to puree – another option. Although the Smoked Chicken Stock is a fabulous addition, I now recognize that the combination here is so pristine, an excellent vegetable stock would be equally successful. I took my cue from the pickled beets we served at Thanksgiving when I was growing up, and offset the beets’ natural sweetness with a similar touch of cider vinegar. On final, I stirred in chopped dill plus a good hit of fresh lemon juice, and tweaked it with a bit more sugar to balance the sweet/sourness. A dollop of yogurt to swirl in makes this a spectacular summer soup – hot or cold.

Further embellishments: add grilled or sautéed Kielbasa for a full and satisfying meal. If the beet greens are available, cut them up, sauté in olive oil and garlic, add a hint of lemon juice, and garnish the soup.

Beet Borscht
Inspired by 1998 Bon Appetit magazine, per Epicurious

3 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, chop
2 cloves garlic, mince
¼ teaspoon allspice
6 cups Smoked Chicken Stock, approx., or other broth
1 cup tomato sauce
1 tablespoon cider vinegar
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt and freshly ground pepper
1 bay leaf
2 carrots, medium chop
3 red potatoes, medium chop
4 beets, peel, medium chop
1/2 head green cabbage, cored and medium chop
1/4 cup dill, chop, or more
1 tablespoon lemon juice
Additional salt, pepper, sugar, or vinegar to taste
Yogurt or sour cream, lemon, dill

In a large pot over medium high, heat oil and sauté onion until soft; stir in the garlic and allspice and cook until aromatic. Add broth, tomato sauce, condiments and seasonings; add carrots, potatoes, beets, cabbage.

Bring soup to boil. Reduce heat and simmer until vegetables are tender, about 30 minutes. Stir in the dill; adjust flavors with lemon juice, salt, pepper as needed, and/or sugar to balance.

Serve hot or cold. Top with dollop of yogurt, sprinkle with dill, offer additional lemon. Serves 6. ~~

Peach Perfect

With all the hyper-fresh fruit hitting the markets in these last days of July, I’m on a serious dessert kick. Nothing is better than a ripe, juicy peach heavy with the sweet promise of summer; so tempting of late, I barely made it out of the market before polishing off my first one. Heading home and temporarily sated, my mind turned to visions of a glorious Clafoutis with peaches.

Ever since I experienced my first Clafoutis at a charming inn in France I have been smitten by this dessert. It was displayed, somehow oddly appropriate, in welcoming splendor on a large entry table – a large deep pan-full, partially cut, for all to ponder. Ultimately, it was as remarkable as it appeared: thick dense fruity custard loaded with sliced apples, sheathed in a puffed and crisp exterior.

I religiously collect Clafoutis recipes and photos, prepare it, sample it whenever the opportunity is presented. One thing I do know, is that there must be as many ways to prepare this classic as there are ways to make bread pudding. Depending on the proportions of egg, flour and milk/cream, the results can be anywhere from a custard base, to a crepe-like consistency, and even a cake of sorts. I love them all.

One version that caught my curiosity recently comes from The French Farm House Cookbook by Susan Hermann Loomis. This one seemed to have a higher amount of milk/cream and more flour than most; plus requiring a minimal amount of butter. Although cherries tend to be the traditional fruit in the Limousin region, Susan suggests apricots. In the past I have also made delicious Clafoutis with apples, pears, plums, and even mangoes.

As far as I am concerned, this is utter perfection. It has all the attributes I find important: it looks delicate and fragile, however it remains beautifully puffed and light. It stands firm and stable, in wonderful contrast to the thick sumptuous interior custard afloat with intense sliced peaches. To die for!

Peach Clafoutis
Adapted from The French Farm House Cookbook
by Susan Hermann Loomis
4 peaches — pitted and cut into thick wedges
1 cup flour — minus 2 Tbsp, sifted
1/4 teaspoon salt — heaping
2 cups milk, divided
3 large eggs
1/3 cup sugar, or more
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 tablespoon butter — cut into 6 pieces

Preheat oven to 450 degrees, butter and lightly flour 9 1/2: round tart pan or baking dish.

In mixing bowl place the sifted flour and salt and mix to combine. Whisk in 1 cup milk until smooth. Add the eggs one at a time, whisking after each. Whisk in sugar, the remaining 1 cup milk, and vanilla.

Arrange the peaches in bottom of baking dish. Pour batter over fruit. Dot with butter and bake until golden and puffed, 30-40 minutes. Cool thoroughly. Serves 6. ~~

Clafoutis Musings: Be certain to butter and flour the baking dish, it will help the rising process. Another trick is to use a very hot oven. Regarding sugar quantity, depending on the fruit, I sometimes sprinkle additional sugar over it before adding the custard. The peaches are so juicy I would not recommend this and would add a bit more to the custard instead. Milk vs cream: it’s customary in most Clafoutis to include cream in the custard, I find 2% milk suffices nicely, just don’t skimp on using the best fruit available.

Kitchen Kuchen

This past weekend I wanted to bake a casual seasonal cake of some sort for out of town visitors and was thrilled to spot marionberries at my neighborhood produce market. These sweet, plump beauties are a coveted specialty crop here in Oregon, and surprisingly as it turns out, marionberries haven’t been around all that long. They were introduced back in the 40’s/50’s as a hybrid cross between two other stalwarts: the small highly prized ollalieberry and the large, prolific Chehalem blackberry.

Here’s a marionberry version of my latest easy dessert and adaptable snack of choice from Grazing by Julie Van Rosendaal, a great little cookbook on simple snacks of all descriptions. It’s fairly stingy on the butter and includes yogurt, which I appreciate, with my penchant for pecking….

Some may choose to call this a coffeecake because of the yummy crumble topping; however as a fellow grazer I prefer to loosely refer to it as a kuchen, with its less limiting implications and timeless possibilities. Try other seasonal fruits such as apricots, pears, or other berries, you won’t be disappointed.

Marionberry Kuchen
Adapted from Grazing by Julie Van Rosendaal
2 tablespoons butter, melted
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 large egg
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 tsp. lemon zest
1/2 cup plain yogurt or milk
1 1/2 cups berries; 2 peaches, apples, 3-4 plums peel if needed, slice
Crumble:
1/3 cup flour
1/3 cup brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 tablespoon butter
2 tablespoons corn syrup or honey
1/4 cup almonds, sliced, optional

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Line and spray 8×8” pan or 5×14” tart pan.

In a medium bowl whisk butter and sugar until well blended, beat in egg and vanilla.

Combine dry ingredients separately along with lemon zest: add half to the butter mixture and beat just to blend; add the yogurt and beat just to blend. Add remaining dry ingredients and beat until just combined.

Spread batter evenly into pan. Sprinkle with berries or layer sliced fruit on top, placing slices close together to overlap, the fruit with shrink as it bakes.

For crumble: In a small bowl, stir sugar, flour, cinnamon together, add the butter and crumble with fingers or fork. Stir in almonds if using and sprinkle the topping evenly over fruit. Bake 30-40 minutes or until golden and springy to touch. Cool in pan; or if using tart pan cool briefly and unmold sides, allow to cool and remove bottom. Serves 4 to 6. ~~