zucchini

Grilled halloumi and vegetables

Halloumi, for those of you not in the know, is a Greek cheese that you can grill or broil or saute. It doesn’t melt! Why doesn’t it melt? I’m thinking it has to do with its crazy rubber-like, chewy, salty nature. While I was at the family cabin this summer, my parents went back and forth between their house in Minneapolis during the week and up to the cabin on the weekends. So every week my mom would call or email and want to know what I wanted her to bring up. One week I thought having grilled halloumi and vegetables would be a nice dinner and asked her to get 2 or 3 packages of halloumi.

She ended up with “3 lbs halloumi” written on her shopping list.

We had quite a few grilled halloumi dinners. Enough, in fact, for me to finally figure out that the way to grill it isn’t in cubes on a skewers, which tends to make the cheese crack and break apart and stick to the grill, but cut into long rectangles put straight on the grill that can be manipulated individually, as well as decently oiled, making them easier to cook evenly.

Notice above the technique of putting the same vegetables on the same skewer, allowing for different cooking times for the different veggies (tomatoes are done quickly, red onions take a bit more time; see more about grilling vegetables). Just skewer everything, brush everything (including the halloumi pieces) with olive oil, sprinkle the veggies with a bit of salt (seriously, the cheese is really salty, so just enough to season them a bit), and grill until done how you like them. As you can see, we like things with a crusty edge at our house. Some may even call it a bit burnt, but we don’t.

Even my dad, who is not a particular fan of meatless dinners, loved the hearty texture of halloumi along with brightly colored grilled cherry tomatoes and chunks of zucchini. He also got pretty into grilling it. As he put it, “it’s kind of fun to grill something like that, that looks so pretty.”

We served it with a lemon orzo pasta (cook orzo in chicken broth, drain, toss with olive oil, lemon juice, and lemon zest – add chives or parsley with whatever floats your boat and serve it hot, warm, or even chilled) and a mint chutney (whirl a bunch of mint, a hot green chile like  a serrano, a few stems of parsley, a clove of garlic, 3 tablespoons olive oil, 1 tablespoon of lemon juice and salt to taste in a blender until smooth and saucy).

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Zucchini mint pesto

It may not be as green as real pesto – the kind made with basil and pine nuts and so forth – but it is awfully green, all the same. Toss it with hot pasta, as is the way with pesto, or use as a sauce on grilled chicken or fish (it is completely and utterly yummers on grilled salmon), or use as a dressing on a pasta salad. I have done all of these to great satisfaction.

In the interest of full disclosure, I got the idea for this “pesto” at an event hosted by the Walnut Board. Yes, things like that go down.*  The walnut people’s people’s assistants invite people like little old me to come up to Napa and eat walnut-laden foods and listen to all-walnut talks and be generally wined and dined and walnuted and put up in places that iron the sheets, all in the fervent hope that we will write something about walnuts. Funny thing is, I like walnuts a lot and am fully aware of how chock-full of omega-3s they are. The other funny thing is that the best recipe I took away from the whole thing was “zucchini mint pesto” but made with way less mint than used here and, obviously, with walnuts. As I was eating it I thought the heretical thought, “this is good, but it would be way better with pistachios.”

And so it is.

Zucchini mint pesto

By the way, this pesto oxidizes (turns brown) just like the real thing, so cover it with olive oil or cover with plastic wrap by pressing the wrap directly onto the surface of the sauce.

2 medium zucchini

10 – 12 sprigs of mint

1 small clove garlic

1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/3 cup shelled pistachios

1/3 cup grated Parmesan or Pecorino

Chop zucchini and put in a blender or food processor. Pick leaves off the sprigs of mint and add them to the zucchini, tearing any larger leaves into smaller pieces if you’re so inclined.

Chop the garlic and throw it in along with the oil and salt. Whirl until a more or less smooth paste forms – this will take a minute or two of running the blender, so be a bit patient.

Add the pistachios and cheese and whirl until smooth again, another minute or two. Taste and add more salt to taste, if you like. Use fairly quickly or cover (plastic wrap or waxed paper or parchment paper pressed to the surface). You can keep it at room temperature for a bit while you prepare the rest of the food or chill up to two days.

* I will never, ever, be able to explain fully to my parents why on earth someone would fly me somewhere, put me up, and stuff me full all in the name of walnuts or lemons or Oaxaca. But they do. I don’t go on very many press trips because, quite frankly, most of them are boring, exhausting, useless, or all three.  Some, however, are insanely useful and informative and fun, and I fully cop to going on those when I think I can smell one from some alchemy of the itinerary, the list of attendees, and the person putting it together.

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Fritters fritters everywhere

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Our CSA box has been confusing lately. Lots of summer vegetables even as the skies are gray and the air is chilly. Such is the way of California living – the sweet corn never seems to end. But you know what? I’m pretty much done with sweet corn for the season. I was, actually, done with corn on the cob way back in August.

So when I unpacked the box this week and found four more ears of corn down at the bottom, I scraped off the kernels, beat in an egg and a few tablespoons of flour and turned them into fritters in but a thin layer of vegetable oil in a large pot. I served them hot with a quick chutney of mint, cilantro, a jalapeno chile, garlic, lemon juice, and a bit of salt. My dashing husband preferred them simply sprinkled with salt because they were so “delicate,” which is really saying something because that man loves himself some spicy.

Two nights later, the pile of zucchini that had been next to the corn taunted me. Fritatta? Pasta? Salad? We’ve had plenty of zucchini versions of all three. You know what we hadn’t had? Zucchini fritters.

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Yum. Made with four smallish zucchini, grated, mixed with an egg and two tablespoons of flour. Recipe-style recipes for Corn Fritters and Zucchini Fritters at Local Foods, but seriously, it’s about 1 1/2 to 2 cups of grated veg, an egg, and two tablespoons flour. If it seems super loose, add another tablespoon of flour. A bit of salt and pepper, and you’re good to pan-fry them.

Then things got completely out of control and I used some frozen corn (it was sitting in the freezer, leftover from a very sad bout of recipe testing) to make corn fritters for breakfast yesterday. No, it wasn’t really right. But yes, it was very very delicious.

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Summer, Fall; Fall, this is Summer

In our farm box last week it was clear that summer and fall are in a passionate embrace and we are the voyeuristic onlookers. Tomatoes, melons, and zucchini were all still there, but a butternut squash showed up too. And what says the cold and rains are a-comin’ like a winter squash? So last night I let Ernie choose the entry in Project Eat That Rice (a little short grain brown number from the Central Valley), made his favorite zucchini and tofu stir-fry, and cooked the lovely little butternut with garlic, ginger, and mustard seeds. The whole thing was sort of painfully good for us–so healthful and frugal and all–but we loved it just the same.

Zucchini & Tofu Stir-Fry

1 Tbsp. (or so) of vegetable or grapeseed oil

An amount of garlic you like (I like about 5 o 6 cloves for this), minced

Same with fresh ginger (for me it’s a nice 3-inch piece), peeled and finely grated or shredded or whatever you want to call it

Red Chile Flakes (to taste and optional, a chopped fresh chile works great if you have one)

4 green onions, chopped (optional)

1 Tbsp. fermented/salted/Chinese black beans

2 Tbsp. sherry or rice wine vinegar or white wine if the pantry is in that bad of shape

3 medium zucchini, chopped into large but manageable pieces

1/2 cup broth or water

8- to 12-oz. silken firm tofu (the shelf-stable kind), cut into small but still bite-size pieces

Soy sauce to taste

Heat the oil is a large and deep frying, saute, or braising pan. Add garlic, ginger, red chile flakes, and green onions. Cook, stirring, until all pasty-looking and fragrant, about 2 minutes. Add black beans and sherry. Stir to combine. Add zucchini, stir; add broth or water and stir and cook until zucchini is tender and liquid is mostly gone. Depending on how fresh and tender (or not) the zucchini is, I’ve been known to cover it to cook for a few minutes. Add tofu, combine and cook until hot. Season with soy sauce to taste.

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“Late Summer Vegetable Stew” (clean-out-the-fridge to you and me)

This was a hit at my house, but that may have been because for a minute there is looked like no one was willing to make dinner and yet we were all famished. I served this Late Summer Vegetable Stew on some polenta (I made it with some vegetable broth I had used in some recipe development for someone else–yuck! what’s the deal? anyone out there have a brand of vegetable broth they like? a recipe so I can make my own?).

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Cotton candy ice cream

cottoncandyicecream.jpgRemember when blue and pink swirled cotton candy flavored ice cream would have sounded awesome? Yeah, me too.

I went for a classic chocolate chip cone instead. Ernie insisted I try his because, and I quote: “Mama, it is so delicious.” I couldn’t even fake it. I had to tell him it just wasn’t for me but I was happy he liked his ice cream choice so very much.

Later on, for actual dinner, we had an even simpler version of the zucchini-tofu stir-fry he flipped for last week (or whenever that was). No fermented black beans, no rice vinegar, not even any soy sauce. It was amazingly good, if I do say so myself. Just garlic, ginger, green onions, and a few red pepper flakes sautéed, add zucchini and a bit of broth and cook until the zucchini is the way you like it, add silken tofu and more broth and cook until hot. Scoop onto rice. If I’d had some I would have sprinkled it with soy sauce when I served it.

The best part? We ate dinner still wearing our swimsuits. That? That’s summer.

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“Best dinner ever”

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“Thanks for making this delicious dinner, Mama,” Ernie said. “It’s the best dinner ever.” And then he continued to use his chopsticks gamely* while declaring with freakish glee, “I love tofu!”

Hmmm…. What does the child want from me? You see what we had: summer squash and tofu sort of braised in a garlic-ginger-chile-rice vinegar-black bean sauce type thing. With some cilantro. And some “bamboo-infused rice” (yes, Project Eat That Rice continues). It was good, but it really wasn’t the best dinner ever. Not by a long shot. Maybe he’s just in a good mood. Yesterday was his last day of pre-school and we’re headed off on a three week vacation to the family cabin in Minnesota (I’ll be working on this “vacation”–I’m thinking of it as a “writing retreat” to give it a vacation-esque feel while acknowledging that pages must be produced!). He has reason to be happy. So do we all. He’ll be going to a day camp (with swimming and t-ball and big kids, oh my!) from which I expect him to come home utterly exhausted.

*Hold the tops together with a rubber band to make it easier for kids to master the art.

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Zucchini on polenta – fresh corn polenta

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I got a little kicky in the kitchen last night. I threw some fresh sweet corn kernels (along with a giant dollop of ricotta and a handful of grated parmesan) into the pot of polenta. Assessment? Yum.

I topped the whole thing with half-moons of zucchini sautéed in olive oil with onion and garlic and a few pine nuts thrown in at the end for good measure. Pretty, easy, and everyone cleaned their plates. A bit of diced tomato on top wouldn’t have been out of place.

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Summer…stew?

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Pressing deadlines and a fridge full o’veggies meant we had this very odd vegetable stew for dinner last night. I made the mistake of referring to it, briefly, during the cooking process as “couscous” (cuckoo!), because I used the spice mix I made to make a most delectable dish inspired by Algerian restaurants in Paris and published in a formal way in Sunset magazine, so Ernie cried when I served it to him and it had, alas, no couscous. There was too much of this… stew that needed to be eaten (oh, that’s always a lovely way to think of dinner) to fill up on couscous (wow, I was fun last night, wasn’t I?). Plus, I had no time to be making couscous. Oh. That’s just sad. That means I didn’t have five minutes to pull together.

If for some reason you want to make a sumer veggie stew, make the ras el hanout in the Sunset recipe. Sautée 3 small summer onions, chopped, in olive oil with plenty of salt. Add 5 cloves minced garlic and an inch of freshly shredded ginger. Add more salt. Add 2 dried chiles (arbol!) and 1/2 tsp.saffron (I’m still working on the collection from when two of my dearest friends were Spanish historians and made regular pilgrimmages to Iberia and returned with scads of cheap saffron; now they’re both married with two boys apiece, so no more free saffron for me!). Sprinkle in 2 tsp. of the ras el hanout, sautée a bit more. Add bout 4 cups chicken or veggie broth (an aside: anyone have a good recipe for vegetarian broth?). Bring to boil. Add a mess of chopped green beans and zucchini. Bring to a boil again. Add chick peas, some leftover cooked potatoes, and kernels from 2 ears of corn. Again, boil. Stir in 5 chopped dry-farmed heirloom tomatoes. Add more salt. Serve topped with harissa and preserved Meyer lemons from the tree in your backyard, or, you know, whatever you find in the back of your fridge.

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Finally, something simple

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After three days of eating every meal in restaurants, and having the majority of them be for professional assessment or a signature event at which I ate what was served me, I reveled in returning to home and farm box. My dashing husband officially “tolerates” zucchini, but noted that the summer squash we get from the farm “actually tastes good” and wondered aloud “how do they do that?” How indeed. I turned some into a zucchini frittata/Spanish tortilla/omelet situation (thanks for the suggestion Luisa!) and sauteed some corn with a stray jalapeno I found in the hydrator.

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