The Fat of the Land

Category: Kitchen

The Onion Cleanse

 

Onion

 

When you picture a purifying post-holiday meal, you probably imagine clear, nourishing broth studded with vibrant greens. Perhaps visions of juiced vegetables dance in your head, endive and citrus salads, cholesterol-taming oatmeal breakfasts. But you probably don’t have a single fantasy about storage onions, that commoner we must resort to in the heart of winter when the juicy sweet onions of summer have withered away. Because the onion has been synonymous with the kitchen for so long—bound together by that time of day when you wander to the counter and begin slicing an onion before you fully know what you want to cook—it has become all but invisible.

Storage onions are so familiar, so basic, they seem squeezed of every last drop of intrigue. Yet they maintain the astonishing power to make (most of) us weep. For me, slicing an onion is nearly torture. About halfway through, my eyes sting so intensely I can’t see anymore. Once, while prepping an onion-heavy dish, a UPS guy showed up at my door—no time to wipe away the evidence, I answered with tears streaming down my face. He paused, I didn’t see the point in explaining, so we made our brief exchange with me looking like I’d just returned from euthanizing a beloved pet.

Still, I’d never given onions a serious thought until I tried growing them. I assumed that something so cheap, so unexceptional must be a piece of cake. But, no; from start to finish, onion cultivation requires finesse, experience, well-crafted patience.

For starters, their seeds are slow and, if you choose to go this route over buying onion sets at a nursery, they must be planted now—months (of watching and watering and coddling) before you will transfer them to the garden. Transplanting is pleasant enough if you are the sort that enjoys removing a hair from a wet finger, as fingers often are in an Oregon spring. And then, right when you think they’re safely tucked into the soil, a playful crow or scrub jay comes along some dewy morning and pulls them all back out, just for fun.

If you persevere—replanting, providing even moisture, keeping the soil cool with mulch, fighting back the weeds that will bully your babies into weaker versions of themselves—and those onion threads grow, finally, into succulent greens, you’re a third of the way there. From this point on, timing is everything: when to bend the tops over to prevent the growth of a flowering stalk that would deplete bulb quality, when to cut off watering to thwart fungal rot, when to dig the bulbs for optimum flavor and storability, how long to cure them, and, at long last, where to store them until you’re ready to let them toy with your emotions one last time on the cutting board.

Onion struggle, however relentless, is worth it. Whether your toil is seed-to-kitchen or simply the sort an unsuspecting UPS guy stumbles upon now and then, the humble onion pays back threefold. All onions contain a range of vitamins and phytonutrients (chemical compounds believed to be responsible for the low disease rates associated with plant-based diets), with the highest levels occurring in pungent storage onions. Sweet onions (think Walla Walla or Vidalia) contain about an eighth of the phytonutrients present in a storage onion. Quercetin, the onion’s most prevalent phytonutrient, is the object of studies investigating its promising ability to prohibit certain cancer cell growth and prevent some of the factors that contribute to heart disease.

Best of all, we know that these beneficial compounds, mysterious as they may otherwise be, aren’t damaged by exposure to heat. Roast away! Sauté your heart out! Put them in almost everything! Cooking tames their offending heat and brings out the sweetness that was waiting underneath. Since the phytonutrient content is denser toward the outer rings, peel conservatively and consider saving the skins (curiously, the most nutritional part) to steep in your next batch of soup stock.

Onions are rarely the star of the show, but this is perhaps their greatest attribute. The more onions you eat, the more benefit you get—in the form of vitamins and phytonutrients, of course, but also in the practice of preparing simple and satisfying meals. They are the first thing in the pot, the foundational ingredient that blends and balances and buoys. They are the kitchen’s best dancing partner, its most fervent soccer mom. And since starting with onions usually means building with other whole ingredients, they dare you—air filled with their enigmatic fragrance—to add more, to cook.

 

Caramelized Onions

Nothing transforms a pungent storage onion so completely as this simple recipe. Though there are many ways to char an onion, this low heat, hour-plus simmer will coax out and deepen all of the onions’ sugars, resulting in a surprisingly sultry ingredient that makes everything taste better: pasta, pizza, soups, sandwiches, omelets, bean dishes, polenta, you name it.

Makes 1 1/3 cups

Ingredients:

2 pounds storage onions (5 or 6 medium), sliced evenly to 1/4-inch thickness
3 tablespoons butter or olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

1. Heat the oil in a skillet with deep sides or a Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add the onions, turning to coat them with the oil. Cook, stirring every few minutes, until they have released their juices and begin to really sizzle against the bottom of the pan, about 20 minutes.

2. Turn the heat down to low or medium low, depending on your stove, and continue to gently cook the onions, stirring every ten minutes or so, while they begin to turn golden brown, then walnut brown, then deep chocolate brown. The cooking will take between 60 and 90 minutes, depending on how deeply caramelized you would like them to be. When the onions are done, splash the pan with a tablespoon of water (for more flavor, use stock or wine); stir until the liquid is reduced and season with salt and pepper.

3. Caramelized onions will keep a week or two in the fridge, or can be frozen for up to three months.

Recipe adapted from Deborah Madison’s Vegetable Literacy.

Scratch Cooking

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“If you want to make an apple pie from scratch,

you must first create the universe.”

–Carl Sagan

Perhaps no idea is more bothersome to those who avoid kitchen toil than that of cooking something from scratch. Upon hearing these words, the mind jumps to anxiety-ridden projects like roasted turkeys, tiered cakes, yeasted breads, and, of course, pie. For this predicament, I can offer no useful advice. These are hard things to make your first (or tenth) time. They demand skills acquired only from practice. But they are also not the sum of what scratch cooking is.

When we proclaim to make something from scratch, what we’re etymologically saying is that we started from the beginning. This now-familiar phrase entered common usage in the mid-18th century and hails from the sports arena, not the stove-top. The line at which a cricket player stood to bat was scratched into the clay surface at his feet, as was the starting point of a race and the line that divided a boxing ring at the beginning of a match. The literal scratch marking where athletes commenced their game morphed into a figurative turn of speech we now associate primarily with creative endeavors, especially cooking.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines from scratch as: “From the very beginning, especially without utilizing or relying on any previous work for assistance.” I can hear Dr. Sagan chuckling. For the reluctant cook, however, this is mostly good news. A beginning, a starting-point—these qualifiers make scratch cooking sound as accessible as slicing an apple.

Along the way—most recently as a result of our blog-glamourized, DIY-obsessed, cooking-as-performance-art foodie-ism—we transposed the ancient practice of building meals from whole ingredients with that of elaborately composed dishes, to the point where scratch cooking has become synonymous with prowess and mastery. What used to be a necessary daily task (one that technologies in food processing largely freed us from) has become a luxury pastime that, should we engage in it, we are told we must not only be good at but enjoy.

I like cooking and part of me subscribes to this thinking, but I also recognize on an almost daily basis that cooking is work. It takes time, planning, and effort; and it is not, if we are honest, an attainable practice everyday for everyone. It is not always fun. Even the most dedicated among us needs a break—preferably in the form of a hamburger—now and then. The holiday season, when we most want to dazzle our friends and family (or simply feel obligated to provide them with dazzle) amidst a swirl of logistics, expectations, and emotions, always bring this truth to a head.

For me, Carl Sagan’s quip about pie (a scratch recipe with which I struggle) calls out what is false about our preoccupation with skill and conquest in the kitchen. If cooking from scratch means starting from the beginning, and the beginning is as unattainable as creating the universe, then the door swings wide open. We are instantly excused to go crack a few eggs into a hot pan, pile them on toasted bread with a handful of greens, and call it dinner. Because it is.

Whether you are a practiced cook or a stranger to the potential of your kitchen, the rules of scratch cooking are the same:

  1. Don’t try to do everything. Since you cannot start from the very beginning, choose a beginning that is comfortable for you. Maybe your beginning is to wash and chop fresh vegetables, maybe it is to simmer a pot of stock using the vegetable scraps you were about to throw out, to try your hand at pie crust again, or simply to place a pan on a burner with something—anything—in it, and the attitude that it is fun to see what will happen.
  2. Start with an ingredient that inspires you. It may inspire you because it perplexes you, or you may walk through the farmers market and see something so radiantly beautiful it must belong to you, now. Those impulses are real and they will likely taste good.
  3. Use a recipe, or don’t. Recipes offer comforting, educated authority. They facilitate a sense of instruction and control attractive to both experienced and inexperienced cooks. They can also create unnecessary boundaries. I used to abandon a recipe if I was short even one ingredient, afraid it wouldn’t work if the chain was missing a link. Now I rarely use a recipe without substitutions. That’s my way; you’ll find yours. The point is to know that there are ways.
  4. Take a break when you need one. Because, some days, pretzels, a sliced apple, and a good book is the most exotic dinner of all.

 

Published in the Southwest Community Connection newspaper, December 2015: http://www.pamplinmedia.com/scc/125-opinion/283142-157542-the-rules-of-scratch-cooking

Lime-a-tillo

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Anywhere outside of Central America the tomatillo is little more than an afterthought—something we have come to know through globalism and restaurants brave enough to affront our rutted palates with the unfamiliar. Even its diminutive name, meaning ‘little tomato,’ suggests it came second, though most archeologists believe the tomatillo was cultivated by ancient Mesoamericans long before its world-famous cousin.

Roughly the size of a cherry tomato, cloaked in an attractive, lantern-shaped husk, the tomatillo looks almost like a tomato, though hold a tomatillo in one hand and a cherry tomato of the same size in the other, and you will begin to feel the difference. With drier flesh, the buoyant tomatillo seems less substantial. Take a bite of each. Unlike a tomato, whose juices ooze with concentrated flavor compounds and sugars, a raw tomatillo comes off as overly lean—bitter acidity and merely a hint of sweetness.

Cook that same tomatillo in a small amount of water or on the grill and its sharpness mellows, cell walls bursting open, releasing pectin that thickens the tartly sweet juices into syrup. The tomatillo, parading as simple and slight, creates its own luscious sauce with only the application of heat. Its vegetal, citrus-infused flavor cuts through lipids like a cool breeze on an August afternoon, explaining the tomatillo’s common association with fatty taco fillings or buttery guacamole.

That the raw tomatillo seems to the tongue like a lime in a poorly executed tomato costume is no coincidence. Lime flavor is dominated by acidic compounds, which occur mostly as citric acid, with ten-percent dashes of malic (from the Latin word for apple; associated with tart things like rhubarb and sour candies) and succinic acids, both of which add to the fruit’s complexity (and are nearly absent in lemons). Tomatillo acidity is primarily citric and malic, a combination that lends its flavor that lime-without-the-peel quality; lime flavor, in its fullness, is a cocktail of acidity, sugar, and aromatic compounds released from the skin.

In traditional Mayan and Aztec cuisines, tomatillos played the role of a pre-Columbian citrus. It’s hard to imagine a plate of Mexican food without that quintessential slice of lime, but citrus trees hail from Asia and did not reach Central America until the 16th Century. The acidic resonance between tomatillos, a long-time staple, and limes, introduced (along with other citrus varieties) by Spanish conquistadors, may explain why these cuisines took to limes much more so than lemons—it was familiar; they already knew what to do with it.

One pre-Columbian use of the tomatillo was to tenderize meat. Stewed with chiles and perhaps a handful of quelites (wild greens, such as purslane or amaranth leaves), tomatillo acidity softened lean cuts the way citrus juice will. Remnants of this technique are evident in dishes like Chile Verde (pork braised in green salsa). Tomatillos perform similar to (and likely predate the use of) lime juice in various salsas, invigorating avocado’s heaviness in a well-balanced guacamole, or kicking up the acidity of chile- and tomato-based salsas.

Although the temptation to toss tomatillo husks out the back door to tumble around the yard like balls of lace must have been irresistible even to the Mayans and Aztecs, their most enterprising cooks discovered arguably better uses. It turns out, for reasons I could not find a definitive explanation of, tomatillo husks contain a leavening agent. Used to improve breads and tamale dough, water boiled with ten or so tomatillo husks somehow imparts masa with a fluffy lightness the way baking soda does in modern recipes. Many sources attribute this to the husk’s acidity. Since the water-husk infusions often (but, tellingly, not always) cite the inclusion of a particular kind of alkaline mineral salt called tequesquite, the basic idea is that the salt and the husk react something like baking soda and vinegar.

In an interesting exchange I found between a Mexican food blogger and the scientist-author Harold McGee, McGee explains that the chemistry of this theory doesn’t pan out. Prepared as an infusion, the gas release that results from the contact between the alkali and the acid would occur during the boiling process, meaning that the fluff-producing magic would extinguish long before it is added to the masa. McGee postulates instead that the leavening could be the result of pectin and other thickening agents; released from rigid cell walls by boiling (with or without the alkaline salt), they might lend enough elasticity to the dense dough to allow air bubbles to expand during cooking.

With no more than a high school chemistry course under my belt, I have nothing to add, except another comment I came across a few times on unrelated sites. Though I hesitate to call it a “tradition” without further evidence, it appears that several Mexican grandmothers have been known to boil tomatillo husks with cactus paddles in order to reduce the paddles’ slime (something akin to okra’s). Sounds like magic, but maybe the slime isn’t disappearing, just thickening, in which case, Harold might be on to something.

So the next time you take home those ‘little tomatoes,’ don’t think tomato at all. Think lime and lightness and silky rich sauce, maybe even husk and all.

Holy Trinity

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When summer turns down the heat, when it can no longer cloak the edge of winter with its sweet, delicate fruit and easy freshness, we must remember again how to cook. Not that we haven’t cooked all summer—there have been sautés, fresh sauces, crowded grills—but the flavors have stayed so available, so forthright, we haven’t needed to add much more than salty cheese, a dousing of vinaigrette, a sear on the grill.

End-of-summer produce is a sultry lot; what was bursting with readiness is now reserved, its proteins and sugars turned meaty or starched in a way that implores the coaxing of a low flame. Our kitchens, too, are suddenly more habitable, their corners cooled by night’s deeper chill, asking, finally, for the symphonic perfume that comes from roasting. It seems right, this pair: a ready kitchen, vegetables seeking warmth.

What you can draw from one gently cooked vegetable—say a tomato, thick slices roasted into candy—expands exponentially when you combine it with a companion or two. These trinities (sometimes duos or quartets) live at the heart of almost every cuisine. They make the stitch between cooking and culture.

Take sofrito, paella’s backbone and the base of many Spanish, Portuguese, and Latin American soups, stews, and rice dishes. Cajun and Creole cooks call their sofrito the Holy Trinity, a trio of onion, celery, and green pepper finely diced and cooked until they sit in their own luscious sauce, ready for the next layer.

They go by different names, but all of these trinities are holy in their own rite, balancing sour and sweet, aroma and spice in a way that may best be summed up by the Italian word agrodulce. A mix of agro (sour) and dulce (sweet), agrodulce, at its most basic, is a sauce made of vinegar and sugar. But it also runs through a sofrito, where the acidity of a tomato meets the sweetness of roasted garlic, onion, and red pepper. Add zucchini and eggplant and you have ratatouille. Take away all but the tomato and onion, add ginger and coriander, and you have an Indian chutney. Give that chutney a couple spoonfulls of peanut butter instead of coriander, and you are on your way to Tongolese azi dessi.

Some trinities are strongly aromatic, such as German suppengrun (literally, “soup greens”), where carrots and leeks lend their earthy sugars to celeriac’s musk; or the French mirepoix—onion, carrot, and celery—offering the root vegetables’ subtle dulce a clean, cutting bitterness in lieu of overt acidity. Italian soffritto is more like mirepoix than its Spanish counterpart, starting with the same onion-carrot-celery base and adorning it with garlic, flat-leaf parsley, fennel, or cured meats. Szechuan cuisine’s holy trinity of ginger, garlic, and chile peppers marries sour and sweet with spice, as does the simplest Mexican rajas—strips of poblano peppers and onions slowly cooked in oil until supple and melded.

This kind of submission is what makes a trinity holy—the melting away of individual identity to become something if not greater, than at least unmistakably different than the sum of its parts. It is a way of cooking that does more than pair compatible flavors; it transforms them. But don’t go looking for texture, don’t expect crust or crunch. A good holy trinity is about softness, about giving up.

And so it is with end of summer vegetables; after months of freshness, I yearn for something deeper, something willing to fade into the background. This year, my trinity of choice is eggplant, tomato, and onion. I stew them slowly in a Dutch oven on the lowest heat, salted judiciously, oregano or thyme for character, a pinch of sugar and a dash of white wine for body. And because it is the last chance (or nearly so) for many other delicious things, from that rich, silky base I build.

Perhaps I’ll strip an ear of late season corn, its sugar becoming starch, adding creamy thickness and a pleasing pop to the stew’s texture. I throw in peppers, sweet or hot, for their meaty softness; Romano or green beans, less tender now than a month ago, which hold their shape after an hour’s simmer, absorbing the sauce and giving back supple firmness, something to chew on. Maybe I’ll cube that zucchini, a little spongy in the center, all the better now to absorb, to give.

You can keep going, adding what you like. Give it a grilled fish, a plate of pasta, a mound of polenta. Dip flatbread in it. Smother it with cheese. Bake it under a blanket of oiled breadcrumbs. Spread it on a sandwich with salami, a sausage. Make a crazy pizza topping out of it. Try it on ice cream. It doesn’t matter, because it takes its perfection with it. You’ve made something whole and, dolloped here, spread there, it stays that way.

Yotam Ottolenghi’s Eggplant Sauce

(adapted from Plenty)

With the addition of onion, softened just before the eggplant, this is the basic sauce I can’t get enough of right now. I cook it longer than the recipe suggests, about forty minutes on a low flame for complete melding.

Serves 4

2/3 cup vegetable oil

1 medium eggplant, cut into 3/4-inch dice

2 tsp tomato paste

1/4 cup white wine

1 cup chopped peeled tomatoes (fresh or canned)

6 1/2 tbsp water

1/4 tsp salt

1/4 tsp sugar

1 tbsp chopped oregano (or 1 tsp dried)

1. Heat the oil in a large saucepan and fry the eggplant on medium heat for 15 minutes or until nicely browned. Drain off as much oil as you can and discard it.

2. Add the tomato paste and stir with the eggplant, cooking 2 minutes. Then add the wine and cook another minute more.

3. Add the chopped tomatoes, water, salt, sugar, and oregano and cook for an additional 10 or more minutes to get a deep-flavored sauce.

4. Serve on its own as a side dish, with pasta and a sprinkle of parmesan, or over a bed of soft polenta (feta–stirred into the polenta or crumbled on top of the sauce–makes a great addition).

Melon’s Savory Side

Proscuitto e melone

This summer delicacy is best when sliced and served unadorned at the height of ripeness. Perhaps because it is so perfect alone, the melon’s reputation as a desirable ingredient doesn’t reach much beyond fruit salad and sorbet. Melon also seems rife with limitations—loose (and in the case of watermelon, watery) flesh, nearly cloying sweetness, and delicate floral qualities that, added up, seem to repel the idea of any course but dessert. However, melons do have an ambitious and intriguing savory side and, given the right kind, will even take a little heat. Try one of these techniques to explore a world beyond the melon ball.

Add some salt to its sweet.  Melon’s pervasive sweetness seems made for salty accouterments.

  • Try tossing cubed watermelon with feta cheese and mint (link to recipe)
  • Combine honeydew with cucumber, feta, and dill (link to recipe)
  • Treat yourself to the classic Italian appetizer, prosciutto e melone, which is delightfully easy to make as long as you have some thinly sliced prosciutto lying around (link to recipe)
  • Don’t be afraid to substitute other cured meats for the prosciutto: crispy fried pancetta, strips of bacon, or even a slice of salty cheese all make delicious pairings

Give it some heat.  Melon’s juicy texture and ample sweetness are the perfect companion to capsicum heat.

  • Sub watermelon for tomatoes in a fresh salsa (link to recipe)
  • Marinate cubes of watermelon in sriracha vinaigrette for a spicy and satisfying snack (link to recipe)
  • Forego the stove on a hot summer evening with this refreshing—and picante—melon gazpacho (link to recipe)

Think inside the spice box.  Salt and pepper aren’t the only game in town when it comes to seasoning melons.

  • Make a refreshing cold soup, like this masala-spiced, Spanish-inspired gazpacho (link to recipe)
  • Treated more like a sweet potato than a dessert fruit, a quick caramelizing sear and toasted caraway seeds make cantaloupe seductively savory in this simple and delicious preparation—try subbing cumin seeds for a variation on the theme (link to recipe)
  • Melons make a great substitute for mango in this cantaloupe cardamom-spiced lassi (link to recipe)

Go green.  Sweet, juicy melon makes a accompaniment to spicy greens, such as arugula, cress, frisee, mizuna, or baby mustard.

Give it grill marks.  A brief spell on the grill adds smoky, caramelized depth to melon sweetness.

  • Make this smoked paprika dusted grilled cantaloupe (link to recipe)
  • Throw a few watermelon slices on the grill to eat plain as a smoky alternative to the picnic classic. Or, why not make it a cheeseburger? (link to recipe)

Calabacitas

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For most gardeners, the story of Cucurbita pepo varieties grown for their immature fruits generally goes like this: as the plants’ lobed leaves quickly grow to jungle-proportions, you eagerly anticipate the first yellow-orange blossoms, watching for their green, finger-shaped fruits, delighting as they begin to appear in abundance. But after a few copious weeks, you start to wonder how you will keep up. You feel the panic of fruits, heavier now, piling up on the counter; the weariness of repetitive sautés. It is about this time, when your sarcastic remarks about ditching a bag on your neighbor’s doorstep begin to take on a tone of intention, that some well-meaning person suggests, “Time to make zucchini bread!”

While zucchini bread certainly makes zucchini taste more like cake, it is not the most efficient way to rid yourself of a bumper crop. Most recipes call for a mere cup or two of grated zucchini—amounting to one moderately sized fruit—along with which you must eat an entire loaf of sugary bread. No, zucchini and their entourage of summer squash, the most efficient of garden producers when measured at a rate of bulk to time, demand an equally efficient cook.

We are used to seeing zucchini, cocozelle, pattypan, summer squash, crookneck and the like through a European lens. Zucchini itself is an Italian word, and the Italians maintain a long-standing love affair with these tender, somewhat watery, mildly bitter summer fruits, one that has resulted in a litany of recipes whose scope and skill implies a culture familiar with zucchini’s infamous profusion. Italian recipes don’t skimp on the zucchini, putting its sometimes-challenging texture front and center more often than not. Indeed, zucchini are often billed as an Italian invention, a claim that is partially true.

Zucchini belongs to the colorful and diverse tribe known as Cucurbita pepo. Thicker-skinned ancestors of the modern day zucchini likely accompanied Columbus when he returned from his Caribbean voyages. The curious vining plants with gourd-shaped or pumpkin-like fruits passed through horticultural circles and were grown, along with tomatoes and eggplant, as ornamental curiosities by a population uncertain of their edibility.

Ethnobotanists theorize that C. pepo’s native range stretched from Central America along the Eastern Seaboard north to Quebec. Archeological evidence dates the domestication of C. pepo as far back as 7,000 to 10,000 years ago. The first cultivated squash were likely grown for their gourds—the fibrous, bitter flesh ignored for the watertight vessel it left behind. The next phase of selection probably focused on the gourd’s seeds—a calorie-dense, storable food—and eventually on the starchy flesh of mature fruits.

Finally, the indigenous people of Central America and Mexico (and those of the eastern U.S., where it is believed C. pepo was domesticated contemporaneously) began to breed, through careful selection, a squash whose immature fruits were fine-textured and mild. Enter: calabacita, the Mexican name for zucchini-like immature squash fruit. To say the Italians invented zucchini is true—Italian gardeners fervently selected for the smooth, dark-green-skinned fruits we mean when we use the term ‘zucchini,’ as well as striped, fluted fruits known as cocozelle—but only if you ignore the thousands of years of indigenous selection that occurred long before Christopher Columbus was a twinkle in his parents’ eyes.

With a long history of cultivation inevitably comes generations of experimentation in the kitchen. Though they rarely make it onto the menu of a typical north-of-the-border restaurant, calabacitas are a mainstay of traditional Mexican cuisine. Ubiquitous in stews and sautéed in endless variation, calabacitas make easy companions to any of their Mesoamerican sisters—beans, corn, tomato, eggplant, peppers—many of the same vegetables we associate with Italian zucchini.

While the calabacita is, technically, a specific summer squash variety (it often appears by the name ‘gray zucchini’ in U.S. seed catalogs), it’s close enough to European-bred varietals like true zucchini, cocozelle, and crookneck that they make a fitting substitute. At heart, all summer squash are all calabacitas—Mexican zucchini. My favorite variety is Costata Romanesca, a firmer-fleshed, nutty cocozelle type that is a prolific producer, keeps some firmness when cooked, and is still tender enough to eat even when my neglected fruits have grown a foot long. I have one plant in my vegetable patch, enough to keep me busy for months.

This year, I’ll skip the zucchini bread in favor of dishes that embrace calabacitas’ abundance and heritage—holding onto Old World favorites like zucchini and ricotta pie, fritters, quick tomato and zucchini stews with Parmigiano cheese, ratatouille—while exploring their New World roots by pairing them with chiles, lime, cream, cilantro, avocado, cumin. No zucchini gardener should ignore a promising lead.

Zucchini, Mexican Style

Work your way through these recipes and you’ll soon have a feel for the humble zucchini’s agility in Mexican cuisine. When shopping for summer squash, choose medium-sized fruits (baby zucchini tend to be bitter and bland) with smooth, shiny skin that feel firm and heavy in your hand. Don’t limit yourself to the standard dark green zucchini—try striped cocozelle, frilled pattypan, warty crooknecks, yellow straightnecks, or even the delightful ‘Tromboncini’ (an immature gourd with delicate, nutty flavor whose firm, dry flesh needs light cooking to soften).

Zucchini and Corn with Cream: This classic southwestern side dish, also called Calabacitas, is deceptively simple: its straightforward ingredient list transforms into flavor big enough to be the main course. (Link)

Zucchini and Avocado Salsa: Capitalizing on raw zucchinis’ ability to draw fresh flavors into its crisp-textured flesh, this salsa makes for a refreshing side salad as much as a healthy dip. (Link)

Pork with Zucchini and Corn: Hearty and satisfying, this traditional stew is a perfect one pot meal. (Link)

Grilled Mexican Zucchini Boats: Inspired by elotes—Mexican grilled corn flavored with chili powder, lime, and mayonnaise—this easy preparation replaces the corncob with zucchini boats for a quick summer dinner. (Link)

Squash Flower Soup: Zucchini blossoms are a gardener’s delicacy, picked when their flavor is most potent—before the late morning sun begins to whither them but after pollinators have had a chance to visit. This soup highlights squash blossom fragrance in a quick-cooking, rustic vegetable stew. (Link)

Apricot Jam

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Though I grew up eating it, I never thought much of jam. Unaware that there was anything else, most of the jam I’d eaten until I was seventeen was the store-bought variety—overly jelled, painfully sweet—and I stuck almost exclusively to raspberry, on toast or a peanut butter sandwich. The summer before my senior year of high school, my parents took me to Europe. Our first stop was Paris, a city of which I was instantly enamored and where I first fell in love with jam.

The store was Fauchon, a luxury grocer whose shelves were lined with finely crafted sundries. We had come for the tea (my mom was a tea fanatic and had read about their legendary selection), but as I wandered the sparklingly exotic aisles, I found myself in front of a wall of jam jars displayed like fine crystal. A rainbow of jewel-tones, their labels read off flavors I’d never dreamed of: strawberry with rose petals, raspberry and litchi, bergamot marmalade, apricot and vanilla bean.

My mom found the jam, too, and picked up a number of jars to take home. I chose apricot and vanilla bean for our hotel breakfasts and picnics in the park. When trying a jam for the first time, you could do worse than to spread it on a Parisian croissant, as we did with that apricot jam. The texture was plump and saucy, not stiff as I was used to, and it dribbled into the folds of my croissant like honey. It tasted of sunshine, the sort that radiates from a field turned late-summer gold, vanilla’s woody nectar giving legs to the fruit’s buoyant acidity, all of which faded into honeysuckle sweetness that lingered in my mouth with the aroma of warmth and hay.

Each of the Fauchon jams we tasted were this way, like a story in a bottle whose prose we savored until we’d scraped every last bit from the side of the jar. I make my own jams now, but I had never come close to a Fauchon jam until this one. As I stirred its bubbling sauce for the first time, I found the fragrance vaguely familiar; and when I tasted a spoonful, I knew why. I was there again, sitting on the fire-escape balcony of a tiny Parisian hotel, experiencing a world outside of my own for the first time, bombarded by its sounds and smells and strangeness, completely mesmerized by its jam.

Apricot and Vanilla-Bean Preserves

From Canning for a New Generation by Liana Krissoff

Makes about 5 Half-Pint Jars

3 pounds ripe apricots, halved and pitted (no need to peel)

½ cup rosé or white wine, or 3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

1½ cups sugar

2 vanilla beans, split lengthwise

  • Prepare for water-bath canning*: Sterilize the jars and keep them hot in the canning pot, put a small plate in the freezer, and put the flat lids in a heat-proof bowl.
  • Cut the apricots into ¼-inch slices. Put the apricots, wine, sugar, and vanilla beans in a wide, 6- to 8-quart pot. Bring to a simmer, stirring frequently, then continue to cook until the juices are just deep enough to cover the apricots, about 5 minutes.
  • Pour the mixture into a colander set over a large bowl and stir the apricots gently to drain off the juices. Return the liquid to the pan and bring to a boil over high heat. Boil, stirring occasionally, until the syrup is reduced by about half, 5 to 10 minutes.
  • Return the apricots and vanilla beans and any accumulated juices to the pan and bring to a simmer. Simmer, stirring frequently, until a small dab of the jam spooned onto the chilled plate and returned to the freezer for a minute becomes somewhat firm (it will not gel), 10 to 15 minutes. Remove from the heat and gently stir for a few seconds to distribute the fruit in the liquid.
  • Ladle boiling water from the canning pot into the bowl with the lids. Using a jar lifter, remove the sterilized jars from the canning pot, carefully pouring the water from each one back into the pot, and place them upright on a folded towel. Drain the water off the jar lids.
  • Remove the vanilla-bean pods and ladle the hot jam into the jars, leaving a ¼-inch headspace at the top. Slide a piece of vanilla-bean pod into each jar so that it’s visible from the outside. Use a damp paper towel to wipe the rims of the jars, then put a flat lid and ring on each jar, adjusting the ring so that it’s just finger-tight. Return the jars to the water in the canning pot, making sure the water covers the jars by at least 1 inch. Bring to a boil, and boil for 5 minutes to process. Remove the jars to a folded towel and do not disturb for 12 hours. After 1 hour, check that the lids have sealed by pressing down on the center of each; if it can be pushed down, it hasn’t sealed, and the jar should be refrigerated immediately.

* This recipe may also be bottled without water-bath canning for storage in the refrigerator (it will keep for about 4 weeks) or freezer (it will keep for a year).

Simple Food

grilled Romaine

Yesterday I spent three hours making beet burger mix. The said mix currently waits in my refrigerator for a busy evening when it will feel deliciously effortless to throw a couple patties in the hot skillet and sit down to a satisfying meal minutes later. What I know at this point is that those six patties took an average of thirty laborious minutes each: simmering the dry beans, cooking the brown rice just so, roasting then peeling then shredding then squeezing the beets, pulverizing oats to a fine flour, caramelizing then deglazing onions, processing some but not all of the beans, mixing the lot together in a bowl where it must sit (must!) for at least twenty-four hours before its burger magic can be activated. And although they come with many glowing recommendations, I don’t yet know how they’ll taste.

It was about the time that my hand was stained past my wrist in crimson beet juice, as I worked to release as much moisture as the recipe implored, that I had the thought of a simple hamburger (I am not vegetarian, though I do have a fanatical love of beets). My mind conjured the beefy kind of burger that has only salt and pepper mixed into its ground, maybe a few snippets of chives, then onto the grill it goes, onto the grilled buttered bun a few minutes later, a squeeze of mustard and a smear of mayonnaise, maybe a slice of tomato or onion, though all I really must have on my burger is pickles and a crisp lettuce leaf. How much better than that, I thought, could these beet burgers be?

It’s all a matter of perspective, of course. For a vegetarian who likes beets, the appeal is obvious. For those who enjoy a grilled patty of ground beef, three hours of work to create an approximation, even for a beet lover, does seem to beg the question: why bother? Why not throw a few slices of lightly oiled and salted, market-fresh beets onto the grill, let their sugars caramelize in the smoky heat, and call it a night?

Without a doubt, I love elaborate cooking. I do not flinch at a recipe, such as my sister and I tackled last Thanksgiving, that requires many hours of peeling and processing roasted chestnuts just to make a little wisp of a cake that is devoured in less than thirty minutes. I love cooking all day, making it all from scratch, watching the minutiae of an extravagant meal unfold and relishing each step like the lines of an exhilarating book.

But summer makes me sluggish in the kitchen. It’s a good thing that hot weather and vegetable bounty come hand-in-hand, because even the thought of a simple soup has me hesitating, weighing the costs of discomfort against the gains of pleasurable flavor. Summer’s mostly sweltering kitchen (you may have already deduced that my house has no AC) adds to the cost, and the plethora of fresh, flavorful produce detracts from any benefit complex cooking may offer.

So it is with simple food that I while away my summer. Nearly half of our cooking takes place on the grill, our summer oven where we roast every kind of vegetable, cook flatbreads and pizzas, sear peaches or pork chops, and occasionally throw down a patty of ground beef, all without raising the temperature in which we must attempt to sleep.

Indoor cooking amounts to variations in chopping, tossing salads, simmering grains, steaming spuds, or briefly sautéing sweet chunks of summer squash and fresh onions. Summer’s flavors are uncomplicated and light. Too much flame or fuss makes their perky crunch go soft. My goal in the kitchen is not to transform, but to preserve—with the judicious use of salt and pepper, citrus or vinegar, and aromatics from the herb patch—all the delicate, inimitable flavors that the sun and soil and farmhands have already cooked up.

Simple Technique: Here’s a roundup of recipes to help you perfect the basics of simple summer cooking.

Grilling – Become a meatless grill-master with this A-to-Z guide to grilling vegetables

Chopping – Cook with your knife to make this refreshing Chopped Salad with Feta, Lime, and Mint

Steaming – Make a Summer Aoli Feast to celebrate the lightly steamed flavors of peak-season market veggies.

Sautéing – Master the art of the simple sauté with this easy to follow guide.

Pickling – Employ brine, your refrigerator, and time to soften and season your favorite summer vegetables. Check out this simple method of making fridge pickles without a recipe.

Raw – Stick with the flavors nature’s made, then ribbon, rice, puree, or toss using this basic guide to raw cooking.

(For those who’d like that beet burger recipe anyway, you can find it here.)

In Defense of Mustard Greens

DSC_3641

Of all the vigorous greens from which we select our weekly staples at market, perhaps none elicits more bewilderment than the mustards. A member of the seemingly infinite brassica tribe (which includes, among many others, kale, broccoli, and cabbage), the mustard family tree is complex and navigating its myriad branches is like committing to a trip down the proverbial rabbit hole. Not to mention that a mere nibble of some of the more pungent varieties can set your tongue tingling with eye-popping spice.

Unsurprisingly, those of us raised without so much as a forkful of mustard greens tend to pass by their tender, undulating, often brightly painted bundles for more familiar forage. I know I did until, working as a farmhand, I found myself with massive quantities of them (said bunches ignored at market). Poor enough not to refuse free food, I took them home and gave them a go, sautéing the chopped greens in oil and garlic. Their infamous heat (the sort that feels like a soda rocket shooting up your nose only to crash and fall back on your tongue in flames) had all but vanished.

The cooked greens were bitter, but not unlikeably so, with a lasting pepper-scented nuttiness that seemed to buoy up the delicate herbal and mineral notes. Like spinach, their texture melted to softness with the bounce of stiff custard, a few bits of stem still sporting a slight crunch. The next day, feeling confident now, I added sautéed mustards to eggs scrambled in butter: vitamins cloaked in luxury. For the rest of the season, I chopped huge bunches into tomato sauce for pasta, dumped them into soups, set everything and anything on beds of them. And when my stint at the farm was done, I found myself truly missing them.

Mustard greens tend to get confused among a whole library’s worth of Brassica varieties that originated in the Central Asian Himalayas and were developed over thousands of years across the Asian continent, often referred to, in a breath, as Asian greens. If we take a moment to imagine all the diversity of European brassicas (kales, collards, cabbages, broccolis, Brussels sprouts, cauliflowers, turnips, etc.) lumped under a single label, let’s say “European greens,” we can begin to comprehend the gross oversimplification (and ethnocentrism) of the term “Asian greens.”

Swimming among a rousingly diverse sea of pak chois, Chinese cabbages and broccolis, Japanese turnips, mizunas, mibunas, and tatsois (to name a few), the mustards rank as one of the most directly translatable to Western cuisine. Their screaming raw heat puts many off, though, as I discovered, cooking reduces it to a whimper. Nutritional powerhouses, they are high in many vitamins and minerals and cooked mustard greens have a special talent (shared with kale and collards) for lowering cholesterol.

Looseleaf types make lovely and mild salad greens when harvested young. Once mature, they range in size from dinner plate broad to feather narrow, dressed in various shades of green, purple, and red, their leaves frilled like a tutu, deeply cut and toothy, or rounded and smooth. Some have narrow, tender stems, others thick, juicy stalks ideal for pickling or braising.

Heading types are often milder, producing tightly wrapped hearts of blanched leaves and a meaty central stem favored for pickling. Roughly chopped, these heads also make a delicious addition to the soup pot or sauté pan.

All types, when allowed to linger a few extra weeks in the garden, send up slender flowering stalks. Though not strictly a broccoli, these flowering stems (sometimes sold as mustard raab) have the sweet and tender nature of their European cousin and are highly prized in my garden. If you miss a few of those stems and they end up in full bloom you may (by sheer neglect alone) permit them to mature into seedpods. The tiny black or brown seeds, crushed and pestle-blended with vinegar, sugar, and spices, will make an exciting condiment that may be delicious on a hot dog.

The thing about mustard greens is that there isn’t any reason at all not to eat them except, of course, that you might not have tried them yet. Pick up a bunch; it doesn’t matter so much which one. Maybe you like juicy stems, maybe not. Maybe the purple splashes laced with fuchsia call to you (they call to me), maybe the lime green frills. Cook them like spinach—in pasta sauce, an omelet, with pork loin rolled around them—or, slathered in some gingery garlicky soy-salty sauce, cook them like a mustard green. They won’t know the difference.

The Sweet Root

parsnip

As much as I love the thrill of rapid-fire freshness, freshness bound to the delicate disposition of beloved summer fruits that seem, at times, to spoil nearly as soon as we get them home, I must admit that winter roots are refreshingly relaxed.

Yes, they lack the juicy sweet acidity of tomatoes or strawberries, but they are endlessly patient with my busy life and forgetful ways, biding their time in some refrigerator drawer until I chance upon them in an attempt to beg dinner from what’s on hand. Desperation draws out an old bag of parsnips, looking little worse for their wear. Scrubbed and waiting on the cutting board, they sit in humble readiness, a root vegetable’s take on freshness. For that, I thank them.

Parsnips look and smell much like a carrot, albeit one the color of faded lace. Eaten as such, their dry, fibrous flesh, woody core, and pungent aroma would stop you at the first bite. These are not roots for nibbling on. Compared to carrots, parsnips are old growth—sown in cool spring soils and left to sweeten through a few rounds of the following winter’s frost, they spend a good nine months underground. In places where the soil freezes, parsnips may be left in it, developing deep, rounded sugars as they sit under the snow.

In our region, now is the time of peak parsnip flavor. Without lingering cold to stunt them, parsnips sown last spring will soon begin their second growth phase. As a biennial, parsnips develop tender roots and thick foliage crowns in their first year, flower shoots and seed heads in their second. As the plants mature into their flower-wearing reproductive phase, the taproots lignify, developing a woody core that is unpleasant to eat. Harvesting before spring kicks in (and spring, in western Oregon, starts mid-February) neatly straddles this cusp—offering roots that had the chance to sweeten in cold ground but have not quite initiated their woody second-year growth.

At market, look for medium-sized roots (one- to two-inches in diameter). Larger parsnips are more likely to have that lignified core, though it is easy enough to spot and remove once the root is quartered. Thin little parsnip wisps are likely to be tender, but if you plan to peel them (as most recipes suggest), you will find yourself with little bulk for lots of effort. Parsnips bruise easily for their density, betraying rough treatment with rust-colored scars. But don’t fret about a few blemishes. Parsnip bruises are not like tomato bruises; remember (and return) their forgiving nature.

Traditional treatment of parsnips goes one of three ways: pureed, roasted, or mashed. I find that their punchy, aromatic fragrance brings rooty brightness to mashes or mélanges of roasted winter vegetables that would otherwise tend toward the cloyingly sweet or bland. Parsnip flavor is full of nuance—caramel and pepper, pungent grass, even nutmeg (with which they share the flavor compound myristicin). Slow roasting brings out their sultry texture—silk with lean muscle—one that was used in wartime Britain to stand in for bananas. This in mind, treating a parsnip with the same technique as a potato or turnip smacks of missed opportunity.

Parsnip’s backbone of a flavor profile can stand up to sturdier seasonings than most of its root cellar kin. It pairs with complex and warming curry blends as deftly as with the pungent cleanness of Mediterranean herbs like rosemary or thyme. Oven-roasted olive oil and rosemary parsnip “fries” dressed in flaky salt are deceptively delicious for how easy they are to make. An introvert of a carrot puree, spread on the plate below something you slice, can become an extravagant sauce when roasted parsnips, saffron, and a pinch of freshly grated ginger are pureed along with it. Parsnips have a pillowy glue about them that, when properly fluffed, makes for buoyant dumplings or tender gnocchi.

But the dessert course is where parsnip transformation reaches the level of enchantment. Grate them into cakes and sweet breads a la carrots, of course, but also consider wilder translations. I came across my first parsnip epiphany in Deborah Madison’s Vegetable Literacy, where she includes a recipe for parsnip-cardamom custard. From there, the gates fly open, imagining parsnips balanced by other warming spices like cinnamon and nutmeg, paired with apples, pears, walnuts, dark chocolate, or dates, sweetened with honey, maple syrup, or molasses. Their silky pulp calls out to pancakes, soufflés, tortes, and streusel-topped coffee cakes, their savory perfume to iced, whipped, or even coconut creams. This spring when the pastry cravings come knocking, consider parsnip your root.