A Savage summer’s plenty: zucchini

Nothing could be easier on a hot day that a salad of baby zucchini and fresh garden tomatoes. What else can you prep in about three minutes? Leslie Savage photo
Nothing could be easier on a hot day than a salad of baby zucchini and fresh garden tomatoes.
What else can you prep in about three minutes? And for ambitious zucchini fans here are two recipes for stuffed zukes. Leslie Savage photo

 

Leslie Savage
Leslie Savage

Baby zucchini sautéed with tomatoes, on toast or rice
Zucchini stuffed with barley and spelt, salmon and spices
Baby zuke salad

Zucchini? The tiny ones are so welcome when they come along, pushing up out of their edible flowers. Then they grow and grow and grow — unless you pick them young. The big kitchen question: what to do with the pounds and pounds that pile up as the summer stretches on into August.

The babies are no problem. Like fingerling potatoes, the smallest little zukes seem the sweetest, and can be used either raw or cooked, in salads — I like them whole, to be sliced on the plate — and in stir fries. The sauté recipe below is one I lived on, more or less exclusively, for a whole week, breakfast, lunch and dinner. (Well, yes, I was on my own.)

It’s the big guys that seem daunting. After zucchini bread, stir fries, and veggies stews such as ratatouille, how many

Patty pan zucchinis or regular long ones—the colours alone spell summer. Stuffing the big ones with salmon in a spelt-barley results in a real BC inspired main dish, while the baby zukes are delicious  sautéd or used raw and  whole in a crunchy salad. Please click on the image to see it in a larger format. Leslie Savage photo
Patty pan zucchinis or regular long ones—the colours alone spell summer. Stuffing the big ones with salmon in a spelt-barley results in a real BC inspired main dish, while the baby zukes are delicious sautéd or used raw and whole in a crunchy salad. Please click on the image to see it in a larger format. Leslie Savage photo

more dishes can we come up with? The recipe below takes a leaf from Middle Eastern cooking — particularly the Ottolenghi books Jerusalem, Plenty and More Plenty, the last two of which are vegetarian (available at Grizzley Books). The Ottolenghi cookbooks are based on a partnership between a Palestinian Arab and An Israeli Jew, as unlikely as that may seem in today’s world.

My first taste of stuffed veggies was in Tel Aviv many many years ago, when an amazing couple took me in, fed and housed me with astonishing hospitality. A film-maker and a social worker, they lived very modesty; I met them standing at a bus stop, with a vague introduction from an Edmonton contact, and within five minutes was whisked on the back of Lea’s motorbike to their apartment. She made a feast of stuffed veggies: eggplant, peppers, potatoes, all taking hours to prep and flavoured with fresh herbs and spices. She spoke almost no English, and his was scanty, but somehow that didn’t seem to matter — we understood each other over food. I still marvel at their spontaneous generosity.

I’ve since learned that Egyptians, Arabs and Israelis, Iranians and probably Iraquis, share a strong belief not only in stuffing veggies, but more importantly,in welcoming strangers. “You see,” said the colleague who met us at the airport in Beirut in 2001, “we Lebanese like to enjoy life!” Coming out of years of civil war, the markets were testimony to the expansive attitude to food we found at dinners out and in peoples’ homes: mounds of eggplant, peppers, greens, piles of arugula (called rocket) and mint and basil scenting the whole market with the aroma of fresh-cut herbs. There too we met many estouffadas.

Both recipes below are inspired by the Ottolenghi books, and by my memories of living in the Middle East, however briefly, at a time when that was possible for foreigners and by the proliferation of zucchini that now fill our markets as well as those across those ancient civilizations.

Sautéd Baby Zucchini with Pancetta and Tomatoes

Combining zucchini with tomato is the basis of many Mediterranean dishes, including ratatouille.  This version is faster and lighter, with the fresh veg keeping their intrinisic character for a dish that shines at breakfast with an egg on top, lunch on a piece of toast, or at dinner on some pasta, rice, or over grilled eggplant. Leslie Savage photo
Combining zucchini with tomato is the basis of many Mediterranean dishes, including ratatouille. This version is faster and lighter, with the fresh veg keeping their intrinisic character for a dish that shines at breakfast with an egg on top, lunch on a piece of toast, or at dinner on some pasta, rice, or over grilled eggplant. Leslie Savage photo

This dish is versatile, fresh and somehow quite delicious despite — or maybe because of — its simplicity. The 15 minute time frame is also appealing. Can be made for any number — the quantities below are okay for 2-3 people.

1 lb small zucchini, sliced diagonally
1 lb fresh tomatoes
100 grams pancetta[*], diced small
1 shallot, thinly sliced
1 tbsp olive oil
½ cup grated old white cheddar cheese[†], not too waxy — Dubliner works well

optional: ½ red pepper, diced; ¼ eggplant, sliced and diced
Breakfast add-ons: 3 fresh eggs, 6 slices Spelt Bread (La Baguette), toasted
Lunch add-ons: crackers or toast, mushrooms
Supper add-ons: serve this over pasta, rice or hash brown potatoes

Turn the oven on the broil and let it heat up as you prep the rest.
Use a wide, fairly deep frying pan, and heat the oil in it for 30 seconds.

Add the pancetta and sauté for 2 minutes, until the pancetta begins to brown.

Add the slivered shallot and stir fry for another minute.

Now add and zucchini. Stir fry again for about 2-3 minutes, turning the zucchini slices so they brown on both sides.
Meanwhile, quarter the tomatoes. When the zukes are browning but not mushy, add the tomatoes. Stir fry for about five minutes.

When the tomatoes are beginning to soften and release their juices, top the mix with cheddar cheese. If you want eggs on top, make a little hollow in the mixture, one for each egg—this quantity is best for 3 people, but could be stretched to 4 in a large enough pan. Put under the broiler for 5-10 minutes or until the cheese begins to brown and the eggs are cooked.

Note: my oven doesn’t let me broil with the door open, so I have to use a frying pan with a non-flammable handle, or transfer everything to a baking dish at this point.
This is good served over La Baguette’s spelt toast — this bread is delightfully crunchy when toasted, and stands up well to the soft veggies, cheese and eggs on top.

Zucchini stuffed with barley, spelt, salmon and spices with sweet’n’sour sauce

Stuffed zucchini with salmon pieces in barley-spelt mix, with lots of seasoning, is a great way to use the large zukes from your garden or someone else’s—you scoop out the pithy centre and the seeds, as in a winter squash, then put the stuffing in the shell. Baking it in liquid ensures thorough cooking — we tried this in a sauté pan and the zuke shell was tough. Leslie Savage photo
Stuffed zucchini with salmon pieces in barley-spelt mix, with lots of seasoning, is a great way to use the large zukes from your garden or someone else’s—you scoop out the pithy centre and the seeds, as in a winter squash, then put the stuffing in the shell. Baking it in liquid ensures thorough cooking — we tried this in a sauté pan and the zuke shell was tough. Leslie Savage photo

I adapted this dish to use BC local foods widely available in summertime: the zucchini of course, and also salmon. The original Ottolenghi recipe calls for rice, but the barley/spelt mix adds a firm nutty texture that contrasts nicely with the cooked and soft zucchini, and contributes a good base for salmon.

I was gratified to learn, after spending two weeks working on this recipe, that Goldie at Pam’s Kitchen on First Street spent a whole year perfecting her new Thai menu.

My first attempt at this stuffed zucchini recipe involved black rice and black beans, in a version I was going to name it Zihua Zukes, in memory of our weeks in Zihuatenejo some years ago. We served it with salsa and guacamole. I baked the stuffed zucchini in a dry baking dish, and the zukes were rock-hard, inedible, really, and the rice/black bean mixture, while it looked like ground beef, was too rich. My long-suffering dinner guest was polite but I ended up deconstructing the dish, and the concept.

The version given here bakes the stuffed zucchini in a sweet-sour sauce that you reduce by half before serving. This is a bit fiddley — you have to either ladle or pour the sauce into another pan, which really means taking the zucchinis out of the baking dish and onto another platter while you pour the cooking liquid into a saucepan — but in fact this whole operation only takes a minute. But wait 15 minutes until the veggies have cooled off a little — otherwise they seem to fall apart easily.

The use of allspice is a Middle Eastern thing. You’d think it would be cloying, but combined with the pomegranate juice, maple syrup, balsamic and lemon, it enlivens the whole dish.

President’s Choice makes a nice mix of barley and spelt, but you can mix up your own. To cook it, boil a big pot of water and simmer the barley/spelt mix for 20 minutes; drain. (This is a great alternative to rice, and can be used in salads calling for quinoa as well.)

Preheat the oven to 400°F. Use a baking dish with 2” sides, large enough to nicely fit all the zucchini halves into. Have some tin foil on hand to make a cover.

For the zucchini
3 lbs largish zukes
¼ red onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 jalapeno pepper, green part only, minced.
1 tbsp olive oil
1 ½ cups barley/spelt mixture, cooked
1 cup chopped fresh tomatoes, or cherry tomatoes halved
1 small salmon fillet, skinned and deboned, in 1 cm dice OR 1 cup raw ground salmon
grated zest of 1 lemon
1 tsp ground cumin
2 tsp ground allspice
handful of fresh mint leaves, minced
1 cup fresh cilantro, finely chopped
1 tsp salt
½ tsp black pepper, freshly ground

Method

Slice the zucchinis lengthwise, or for patty-pan round ones, through the ribbed edge. Cut off the ends. Use a spoon to remove the seeds and mushy centres — this is easier than it sounds if you use a nicely rounded dessert spoon with a but of an edge. Scrape out any soft bits, leaving a nice shell.

Heat the oil in a frying pan and add the chopped onion and garlic. Cook for about 5 minutes. Add the barley-spelt mixture, the spices, the jalapeno pepper and the mint. Cook another 5-6 minutes. Then add the chopped tomatoes, lemon zest and chopped cilantro. Cook another 2-3 minutes, then remove from heat. Add the diced salmon. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Fill the zucchini boats with the barley/spelt/salmon mix, pressing the filling down a little. Arrange the stuffed zukes in a baking dish so they fit quite tightly.

Pour in the cooking liquid (below) and make a foil cover for the dish. Bake 1 hour at 400F.
When the zucchini are soft enough to put a fork through, remove from oven and let sit 15 minutes. Pour or ladle the cooking liquid into a saucepan and boil for 15-20 minutes to reduce by half.
Now spoon the sauce back over the zukes.
Serve with sauce below, if desired, or with a squeeze of lemon.

Cooking liquid
2 cups vegetable or chicken stock
1 tsp ground allspice
½ cup pomegranate juice
1 tbsp maple syrup
1 tbsp balsamic vinegar
juice of 1 lemon
1 tbsp white sugar
1 tsp salt
3 cloves garlic, minced

Sauce (optional)
¼ cup olive oil
½ cup Greek yogurt
1 cup fresh mint leaves
½ tsp salt
juice 1 lemon

Blitz all the above in a blender until smooth. Use to pour over the stuffed zukes when serviing.

BBQ VARIATION
You could do these over a BBQ: rather than using each zucchini half on its own, use string to tie the stuffed halves back together again, and then wrap them firmly in 2 layers of foil. Cook over coals or on the upper part of a gas BBQ for ½ hour; test for doneness.

Pancetta is available at most deli counters. If you have none, substitute 2 rashers of bacon, diced. The bacon is more strongly flavoured with both smoke and salt.

You can use any cheese you like, but a sharp one, such as old cheddar or gogonzola, will add to the otherwise mild flavour.