October 20, 2009

Zucchini Love

I spent the summer after high school graduation blissfully avoiding the OJ Simpson trial on the island of Sardinia, carrying out the family tradition of student exchange. Except, I sort of cheated. My mother (and my aunt as well) spent an entire year abroad, attending school, learning the language, soaking up the culture. The idea of delaying my first year of college only to slog thorough yet another senior year of high school was not my idea of acceptable. I couldn’t stand the thought of being a high schooler again, especially not just weeks after finally walking across that stage in a cap and gown. But spending a summer lolling on an Italian beach did sound like my kind of thing, so rather than the full year, I opted for a short, eight week stay, just enough time to get a little culture and a tan before heading off to college.

One of my goals, besides learning to drink wine and swear in another language (other than French, I could already swear in French, sorry Madame Hoffman!), was to learn about Italian food. I’d just read A Year in Provence and had been fantasizing about all the cheeses and breads and sauces and meats that I would be devouring during my exchange. Of course, I’d also just read A Room with a View and was half expecting to fall madly in love while I was there. On both counts I was a little disappointed. Other than some mild flirting, romance was not blossoming on the beaches of Cala Gonone that summer, and the food, well, it was good, don’t get me wrong, it was just that my family cooked the same thing EVERY DAY. Pasta in red sauce. In fact, they only cooked it once a week. Every Sunday a huge pot of tomato sauce would simmer away on the stove all afternoon before being tucked onto the top shelf of the fridge. After that, every lunch and dinner would see a few scoops of sauce ladled out, warmed up with a scattering of meat, a spread over pasta. There were very few variations and the extra journal that I’d brought with the sole intention of filling with recipes filled instead with the words to silly songs I learned, terrible poetry that that I wrote (remember my extensive poetry experience?) and a few journal entries that were too personal to put in the account I was keeping for my parents.

I did record that sauce recipe (tomatoes, wine, basil, not much else, it was good though) and a few others that I ran across including my first meal with my host family, a recipe that started my love of zucchini and made me think, just for a day, that my journal full of recipes dream was going to be a reality. Zucchini Ripiene. The thing about this recipe, which, bear in mind, was written down in English by someone who spoke no Italian what-so-ever and was translated using a very battered and dated Sardo to English dictionary (my host family spoke Sardo, a dialect so strong I think it is sometimes considered a whole different language, which made learning Italian a little difficult) so I take no responsibility as to the spelling or the exact proportions of this recipe, but the thing about it is, it’s really hard to make in the US because it requires severely overgrown zucchini. And while there are =plenty of jokes out there about people being overtaken by giant zucchini, I‘ve found that most gardeners so fear the dreaded giant zucchini that they vigilantly pick their produce when they are still small and manageable. So if you want to make this, you pretty much have to grow your own massive marrows. Whenever I have a garden I try to leave a few zucchini on the vine each year just for this recipe.

But as I did not have a garden this summer and since I still love zucchini, I’m always on a mission to find great recipes to use the vegetable (or is zucchini one of those, not a vegetable but actually a fruit species) to its best advantage. And having fallen in love with the River Cottage Family Cookbook last week, this week I’ve moved on to the original River Cottage tome, and there it was. My new, favorite zucchini recipe.

The best part thing about this recipe, other than that it is really good, is that it’s really fast. And fast is the name of the game in our house on the weekends. If I can’t get it made in 15 minutes or less, we’re heading to the Bodo’s for a bagful of bagel sandwiches. And frankly, after spending the day painting doors, laying out garden beds, mounting bookshelves, or hanging lights, I really don’t want to spend an hour cooking anyway. This particular recipe can be made in the time it takes to cook pasta. So really, it’s even faster than Mac N Cheese, and the kids were just as happy to dig into a plate of this, as they are the ubiquitous yellow noodles.

Zucchini Pasta (adapted from The River Cottage Cookbook)

2 medium zucchini, grated finely
2 T olive oil
2 T heavy cream
a handful of grated Parmesan
salt and pepper to taste
Pasta of your choice.

The original called for sautéing onions into this first but since my house if full of onion whiners, I left them out, but I think it would make it even better.

Put the pasta to cook in boiling water.

In a heavy sauce pan heat the oil and toss in the zucchini, keeping the heat low enough so that the zucchini doesn’t brown but instead just melts into a gooey mass. Once it’s nice and soft (but still bright green!) stir in the cream, cheese and seasoning and stir, if it seems a little thick you can either add more cream or, if you want to be healthy, a ladle full of pasta water. Drain the pasta, toss with the sauce and grate some cheese over the top. See, told you it was fast!

Honestly, my husband isn’t’ a big zucchini fan and he loved this and Briton, who does like zucchini ate a huge bowlful. Even Evelyn, who doesn’t really eat anything other than yogurt, ate a good helping.

And just in case you have a few overgrown zucchini sitting in your garden just begging to be eaten up.

Zucchini Ripiene

2 large zucchini (a good 4 inches across when sliced) cut crosswise into thick (five inch long) pieces.
1/2 lb hamburger meat
1-cup breadcrumbs
1 large can good stewed tomatoes
1/2 cup chopped onion
1 clove crushed garlic
a few basil leaves, torn
salt and pepper to taste

Standing the zucchini chunks upright on a pan, bake them (350 ish) until the centers are soft. Scoop out as much of the centers as you can without the whole thing falling apart. Sauté the onions and garlic until soft, add meat and drained tomatoes and a little of the cooked zucchini. Mix in chopped basil and breadcrumbs and fill the zucchini shells, popping them back into the oven until heated through.

It seems like there was probably cheese grated on the top of these, I didn’t write that down but I know when I’ve baked it since I grate a good amount of hard cheese over the whole thing before it goes back into the oven, because really, what isn’t better topped with cheese?