Vegetables & Sides
There are many ways to cook zucchini, but for me simply braising is by far the best way to bring zucchini’s delicate flavor to full bloom. Once braised there are so many quick and easy applications awaiting.
Zucchini, in the squash family, is native to the Americas. However the zucchini we are now familiar with is a hybrid that was developed in Italy in the 19th century and named zucchini, the diminutive of zucca. Colors range from pale to deep green as well as light yellow to a deep orange. Zucchini is usually harvested while still young, about 6 to eight inches in length, with seeds that are still soft and tender. Left to grow zucchini can reach up to a meter in length.
Anyone who has grown zucchini knows full well it is the garden’s star over achiever. The harvest can be continuous and down right overwhelming, as are the challenges for the cook who is faced with “oh no, not zucchini again.”
More often than not zucchini is cooked into other dishes like a Provencal ratatouille which is splendid, but the zucchini’s real personality is somewhat lost in translation. Be that as it may, zucchini can really shine on its very own if cooked properly.
Using this simple braising method requires only a few ingredients and a well tended low heat braising on the stove top that slowly coaxes out a nuanced flavor of summer that could only come from zucchini.
Ounce braised the zucchini can then be used as a side dish, pureed for a soup that can be served chilled in the summer or warm as fall approaches, or as a sauce for pasta along with braised zucchini and poached chicken. This is a pasta sauce that has become one of my very favorites when cooking up a summery meal .
- 2 ½ pounds 6 to 8 inch zucchini, trimmed
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 ½ cups finely diced onions
- 3 plump garlic cloves, peeled and minced
- ½ teaspoon dried marjoram
- 4 ½ cups chicken stock (or water), hot
- ½ cup cream
- 1 cup grated Parmigiano
- flaked sea salt and freshly ground white pepper to taste
Cut the trimmed zucchini into quarters lengthwise. Slice the quarters into ½ inch slices. Place in a bowl and set aside.
Place a wide heavy bottomed pan on the stove over medium low heat. Add the olive oil and when the oil slides easily in the pan add the onions and saute for 5 minutes, stirring from time to time.
Add the garlic and cook another 2 minutes while stirring.
Then add the sliced zucchini and fold them into the onion mixture. Reduce the heat to low and cook for 25 to 30 minutes. Stir frequently and be sure to lift the onions off the bottom of the pan so they do not burn.
Stir in the marjoram after about 15 minutes of cooking time and season sparingly with salt and pepper.
After about 20 minutes you will have to stir more frequently, being sure to continuously lift the onions off the bottom of the pan. Once the zucchini is very soft, just barely colored, and looking slightly glazed remove the pan from the heat.
At this point, if you are intending to use the braised zucchini for a pasta remove about ¼ of the braised zucchini and set aside to use for the pasta later.
If you are intending to serve the braised zucchini as a side dish, add a little cream and a little hot stock and to the pan and stir to combine. Then add some grated Parmigiano, season with salt and pepper, and serve.
Otherwise set the pan with the braised zucchini back onto the stove over medium heat. Add about two thirds of the hot stock (or water) and bring to a boil. Then lower the heat to a simmer and cook for about 20 to 30 minutes or until the liquid is reduced by half and the zucchini is very soft.
Remove from the heat, cool a few minutes. Then blend with an immersion blender (or transfer to a blender) and blend until smooth. If the puree seems very thick add a little more hot stock and blend.
Return the mixture to the heat and bring back up to a low simmer. Slowly stir in the cream until incorporated and then stir in the Parmigiano. Continue to stir 1 minute and then taste. Add additional salt and pepper if needed. Stir well and set aside.
Cool the puree to room temperature if you are intending to use as a soup. Then cover and refrigerate. Serve chilled or warmed slightly.
If you are intending to use the puree as a pasta sauce you may want to reduce the sauce a little bit more.
Meanwhile divide the poached chicken into bite size strips and reheat with a little chicken stock or water.
Boil your pasta until cooked al dente and drain.
Add the reserved braised zucchini and the warmed chicken to the hot reduced sauce and stir. Then fold in the cooked pasta.
Transfer the pasta to individual pasta bowls, spooning any remaining sauce over the pasta. Grate Parmigiano over the pasta and serve.
Feliz Cinco de Mayo!
Cinco de Mayo celebrates Mexico’s first step towards independence and is celebrated throughout Mexico and North America every year on the 5th of May. For more on the back story of that momentous day (click here).
For this year’s Cinco de Mayo I wanted to focus on influences on Mexican cuisine that began with Hernan Cotes’ arrival on the Mexican gulf coast in 1519. There he established the port of Veracruz which was to be his launching point for the conquest of the Mexico. Marching inland Cortes captured the Aztec capital of Tenochttitlan and claimed Mexico for the Spanish crown in 1520.
After a little more than three centuries Spanish rule finally came to an end following a momentous victory in the Franco-Mexican war. A brief French occupation of Mexico followed but ended with a ragtag battle of Puebla on the 5th of May in 1862. The Cinco de Mayo defeat of the French in Puebla has been celebrated every year since.
With Cortes came many culinary influences from Spain, Cuba, as well as from West Africa communities in the Caribbean that forever changed native Mexican cooking. This is particularly apparent in the cuisines of the Gulf coast of Mexico as well as Caribbean coast of the Yucatan.
The recipes that follow reflect the melding of influences that make Mexican food so fascinating. There is a colorful story told with every bite!
- Mexican Citrus Chicken
- Flame Roasted Peppers & Jalapenos
- Yellow Rice
- Black Beans
Mexican Citrus Chicken: serves 4
- 4 chicken legs with thigh attached
- 2 lemons (or 3 limes), zest peeled into large strips and juiced
- 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 12 garlic cloves peeled and very thinly sliced
- 8 sun dried tomatoes, reconstituted, and thinly sliced into small strips
- fresh marjoram leaves, about 2 tablespoons
- 4 teaspoons capers (optional)
- 2 onions, peeled and cut into thinly sliced rings
- sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Rinse the chicken and pat dry with paper towels. Generously salt and pepper the chicken and press the seasoning onto the chicken and set aside.
Using a deep baking dish, combine the zest strips, lemon (or lime) juice, olive oil, garlic, sun dried tomatoes, marjoram leaves, and capers (if using). Whisk the ingredient together and then add the onions and toss together.
Add the chicken, exposed flesh side down, and using your hands gently massage the chicken in the mixture and arrange the chicken in the dish leaving some of the mixture in the bottom of the dish and covering the chicken with the remaining mixture. Firmly press the chicken into the marinade and cover the dish with cling film. Place in the refrigerator to marinate for up to six hours or overnight. Turn the chicken skin side down after several hours and return it to the refrigerator for several hours more.
Remove the chicken from the refrigerator and bring to room temperature.
Preheat the oven to 425f/220c
Turn the chicken skin side up. Massage the chicken in the marinade and then arrange the other ingredients around and on top of the chicken. Place in the oven and roast for 30 minutes.
Baste the chicken with the pan juices. Add a little water if needed to ensure there is enough liquid in the bottom of the backing dish. Rotate the baking dish and roast another 30 minutes.
Once again baste the chicken with pan juices. If the surface of the chicken very brown loosely cover with foil and roast another 15 minutes.
Remove the baking dish from the oven and allow the chicken to rest for 5 minutes before serving.
Serving: Plate the chicken along with the other ingredients placed over and around the chicken. Spoon pan juices over all and serve.
Quick Black Beans: Serves 4 to 6
- 2 8 ½ oz/240g cans of black beans
- 2 tablespoons cold pressed peanut oil (or olive oil)
- 1 large onion, peeled and finely diced
- 3 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
- 1 teaspoon toasted cumin seeds, coarsley ground
- 2 dried red chillies, whole
- 2 to 3 cups stock or water, hot
- sea salt to taste
Heat a large saucepan over medium low heat. When hot add the oil and then the onions. Cook the onions, stirring now and again, until they are soft and translucent. Add the garlic and the cumin seeds and cook 2 minutes while stirring.
Add the beans including their liquid and stir them into the onion mixture. Then slip in the whole chillies. When nearly boiling add 2 cups of nearly boiling hot stock or water and stir. Once boiling reduce the heat to a simmer and cook for 30 minutes. Taste the beans. You want them to be quite soft. If they are still a bit firm cook another 1o minutes.
Remove about ¾ of a cup of beans and place them in a bowl. Mash them until fairly smooth and then stir them back into the pot with the beans. At this point you may want to add a little more water if the beans in their broth seem very thick. Cook another 10 minutes while stirring. Add salt to taste and stir to combine. The beans should be very moist but not soupy.
Serve at once or set aside to cool to room temperature before storing in the refrigerator.
Flame Roasted Peppers, Jalapeno chilies:
- 2 red bell peppers
- 2 yellow bell peppers
- 6-8 green jalapenos
- 4 large garlic cloves, whole with skin on
- olive oil
- sea salt
For instructions for flame roasting (click here).
Once the peppers, jalapenos, and garlic are flame roasted and sweated, remove the skin and cut the peeled peppers and jalapenos in half lengthwise. Remove the seeds and any pithy membranes and discard. Slice them into strips (rajas) and place them in a bowl.
Peel off the skin of the garlic cloves and thinly slice the cloves lengthwise and add them to the bowl of rajas. Drizzle with olive oil and season with salt to taste. Toss until well combined, cover with cling film, and refrigerate until ready to serve.
- 2 cups long grain rice, well rinsed
- water or stock
- ½ teaspoon saffron threads/ 1 teaspoon azafran (dried safflowers)/ or powdered turmeric
- sea salt.
Coloring the rice is optional, but it does add to the aesthetic appeal and well worth trying. True saffron adds a subtle color and flavor to the rice, while azafron (available in Mexican and some Asian markets) adds color only. Turmeric adds a yellow color with a pleasant subdued flavor and is readily available in supermarkets.
Put the rinsed rice in a large pot and cover with an equal part of water or stock. Stir in your seasoning of choice, as well as a pinch of sea salt. Place over medium heat and when boiling reduce the heat to a low simmer, partially cover with a lid, and cook about 15 minutes or until the liquid is nearly absorbed into the rice. Be sure to stir frequently so the rice doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pan.
Promptly remove the pan from the heat and cover with a tight fitting lid. Set aside for about 20 minutes to steam.
Fluff the rice with a fork just before serving.
Turning left over baked potatoes into a potato salad is one thing, but I have Nigella Lawson to thank for her unfettered intuitiveness in including a recipe for purpose baked potato salad that was published in her Forever Summer cookbook years ago. I’ve been making variations of baked potato salads ever since!
Why use baked rather than the standard practice of boiled potatoes for potato salad? Well, I am not a bonafide food sleuth, but logic would have it that baking potatoes modifies the starch content of the potatoes as water is absorbed into the flesh during the baking process. The results are a fluffier, sweeter, and more flavorsome flesh.
Another tip for intensifying baked potato’s flavor, which I gleaned from my father in law long before I ever took cooking seriously, is to beard (salt) the potatoes before baking. The salt draws out additional moisture during baking, crisps the skin, and further sweetens the flesh.
Baking potatoes in the oven is the preferred method for maximum flavor, but if you are concerned about your carbon footprint or you’re just in a hurry, using the microwave is not a sin! The results are nearly indiscernible in the finished salad.
In the recipe that follows I have used Yukon gold potatoes, but by all means use your baking potato of choice. This is a potato salad I like to pair with seafood. It is decidedly lighter with a crisp flavor spike that mirrors a tarter sauce, if you will, but without being clawing and overly rich, and compliments seafood beautifully.
Ideally make this salad a day in advance. Doing so allows an exchange of flavors that are absorbed into the potatoes.
Baked Potato Salad makes 4 servings
- 4 large baking potatoes
- flaked sea salt for dredging
- 1 onion, peeled and diced, about 1 cup
- 1 cup finely diced young celery
- ½ cup mayonnaise
- 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
- 2 teaspoons prepared horseradish (or more to taste), or wasabi to taste if you are feeling adventurous
- 2 teaspoons cider vinegar
- 1/3 cup Greek yogurt
- 2 tablespoons fresh minced dill leaves or minced broad leaf parsley leaves
- flaked sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Baking the potatoes:
Preheat the oven to 350f/180c
Spread a good amount of flaked sea salt on a plate or in a shallow bowl.
Rinse the potatoes under cold running water. Using a skewer, poke holes in the potatoes to allow steam to escape during baking. Re moisten the potatoes, shake off excess water and promptly roll the potatoes in the salt to coat evenly. Place the salted potatoes on a baking tray.
Transfer the tray of “bearded” potatoes to the preheated oven and bake for between 1 and 1 ½ hours. The finished potatoes should be a little firmer than a baked potatoes you would intend to serve from oven to table.
For microwave baking, microwave the potatoes for about 8 to 10 minutes. Again the potatoes should be a little firmer than potatoes you intend to serve from microwave to table.
When the potatoes are baked set them aside to cool. When cool enough to handle peel off the skin by hand. No need to be too meticulous as a little skin left intact will add some flavor to the salad.
Transfer the peeled potatoes to a bowl and refrigerate until well chilled.
While the potatoes are chilling you can go ahead and make the dressing.
For the dressing:
In a small bowl combine the mayonnaise, Dijon mustard, horseradish (or wasabi), and the vinegar and mix together. Then stir in the yogurt and mix vigorously until well incorporated. Stir in salt, pepper and taste, making adjustments as needed. Chill the dressing until you are ready to finish the salad.
Once the potatoes are chilled remove from the refrigerator and cut the potatoes into bite size cubes and return them to the bowl. Add the onions, celery, and minced dill or parsley and toss until well combined.
Spoon the dressing over the tossed ingredients and fold the salad together being sure the potatoes are evenly coated. Taste the salad and adjust seasonings if needed.
Cover and Refrigerate the salad until you are ready to serve.
Remove the potato salad from the fridge and give it a good stir. Transfer the salad to a serving platter or individual plates and garnish with minced dill or broad leafy parsley and serve.
Frijoles means beans of course in Spanish. However the word Refritos can be misleading. Mexicans have this habit of qualify a word to emphasize the meaning by adding the prefix re-. Refritos actually means well fried as opposed to re-fried as the word is often mistakenly interpreted to mean outside of Mexico.
Frijoles Refritos (well fried beans) are an everyday Mexican staple with many regional variations. Essentially, boiled beans are tipped into a pan of lard fried onions and garlic along with their cooking broth. I know, lard has gotten a bad rap over the years, but recently lard has been making a come back and not be so bad for you after all. I’m famous for saying “a little indulgence now and again isn’t going to kill you.” However if lard or bacon fat isn’t in the cards for you I have found that cold pressed peanut oil imparts the same unctuousness that lard does without any guilt or regrets.
The texture of frijoles refritos can vary widely. They can be mashed and fried with their broth to a thick porridge like consistency or by continuing the frying until the beans are almost dry and roll out of the pan and onto a plate much like you would do with an omelet. The latter is by far my preference as the flavor intensifies with a longer frying time. These are the frijoles refritos I really fell in love with while travelling all over Mexico.
Mexican Frijoles Refritos serves 6
Have on hand 10-12 inch non-stick frying pan
- 4-6 tablespoons melted lard, bacon drippings, or cold pressed peanut oil
- 1 onion, finely diced
- 3 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
- 4-5 cups cooked beans (or canned beans) in their cooking broth (see here)
- sea salt to taste
- 4 oz Mexican farmers cheese (if available), dry feta, or creamy goat cheese
- oregano (Mexican if available)
- fresh marjoram
- chipotle powder or pure red chile powder (New Mexican is ideal)
Place the fat of choice in the frying pan over medium-low heat. When the fat is hot add the onions and fry until the onions are very soft and translucent, about 12 minutes. Add the garlic and continue to fry another 2 minutes.
I would advise wearing an apron as the beans will splatter a bit until the cooking broth evaporates while frying.
Turn the heat up to medium and add 1 cup of the beans and some cooking broth. Begin mashing the beans with a bean masher, potato masher, or large fork. Move the beans around as you mash diligently until the beans resemble a coarse puree. Then add another cup of beans and broth and continue mashing as before. Repeat the same process with the remaining beans and broth while continuing to mash the beans until the mixture is the texture you prefer.
If you would like a smoother texture, remove the pan from the heat and blend with an immersion blender set on low speed until the bean puree is to your liking. Then return the pan to the heat and continue frying.
At this point you can stir in any of the optional seasonings if you like.
Using a heat proof silicone spoon is ideal for moving the puree around in the pan as you continue to fry. Be sure to continuously move the spoon around the edges and across the bottom of the pan as you fry, folding the puree over on top of itself as you continue frying. As the liquid evaporates the bean puree will begin to firm up. At this point taste the beans and add salt to taste being sure to stir in the salt throughout the mixture evenly.
Continue frying just until the bean puree has a sheen to it and releases from the sides and bottom of the pan nearly on its own as you move the beans from side to side of the pan. Total frying time will be 20 to 25 minutes from start to finish. Be careful not to over cook as the beans will firm up somewhat as they cool.
Once the beans are firmed to your liking move the puree to one side of the pan and tip into a serving platter.
Scatter the cheese over the beans and serve. The interior of the beans will remain quite warm for quite a while for second helpings.
Delicious served along tortilla chips with drinks, included in a nachos platter, or as a side with many Mexican main courses.