Basics

Braised Zucchini with Pasta

Braised Zucchini with Pasta

 

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 .

 

Braised Zucchini

  • 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.

Braised Zucchini

Braised Zucchini

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.

Braised Zucchini as a side dish.

Braised Zucchini as a side dish.

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.

Braised Zucchini Soup or Pasta Sauce

Braised Zucchini Soup or Pasta Sauce

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.

Welsh Cake

Welsh Cakes

 

While having coffee with my Welsh friend Paul the other day Welsh Cakes (pice ar y maen) wandered into our conversation. I confess I had never heard of Welsh cakes. Being the ever curious cook that I am, we ended up having a long chat about how his mother made her Welsh cakes for the family when they were kids back in Cardiff.

I have to say making these girdled cakes was so intriguing I was up at 6 am the following morning researching recipes and off into the kitchen making Welsh cakes!

The results were a cook’s epiphany. Easily mixed up and onto the griddle in no time. Welsh cakes are scones cooked on a griddle, if you will, but with a lighter billowy center while beautifully browned and slightly crisped on top and bottom. The upside is, unlike scones which are really best eaten right out of the oven, Welsh cakes have staying power. They were often packed into lunch boxes in the old days in Wales, tasting just as griddle fresh throughout the day as well as the following day with a short reheat.

These rustic Welsh gems must be tried! I just love them!

 

Welsh Cakes: makes 12

This is a basic recipe that makes traditional Welsh cakes that are perfect just as they are. However, feel free to try other dried fruits such as raisins or dried berries. You can also add a pinch or two of spices such as cinnamon or allspice as well as lemon or orange zest.

  • 8 oz/225g all purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 3 ½ oz/100g unsalted butter, cold
  • 1.8oz/50g fine granulated (caster) sugar + extra for sprinkling
  • 1.8oz/50g currants
  • 1 organic egg
  • 3 tablespoons milk

Equipment:

  • a cast iron griddle or cast iron skillet, or heavy bottomed non-stick skillet as an alternative.
  • a 2 ½ inch/6 ½cm round biscuit or cookie cutter

 

Place the flour and salt in a mixing bowl and stir until well combined. Cut the well chilled butter into small cubes and add them to the flour mixture. Using a pastry cutter or, my preference, use your fingers to work the butter into the flour until the mixture resembles a course meal, much as you would pastry flour for a pie crust.

Add the sugar and the currants to the flour mixture and stir in with a wooden spoon or silicone spatula until well combined.

Beat together the egg and milk. Make a well in the center of the flour mixture and, using the wooden spoon or spatula, work the liquid into the flour mixture until evenly distributed and the dough is starting to come together.

At this point, using your hands, gather the dough into a ball without overworking the dough.

Transfer the dough to a floured work surface and flatten the dough a bit. Dust the top of the dough with some flour and flour the rolling pin.

Begin rolling out the dough, giving the dough a quarter turn as you roll it out. If the dough is sticking to the work surface, lift it up and add a little more flour underneath it. Then roll the dough out to about a ¼ inch/ 2/3  cm thickness.

Cut out your cakes with the cutter and set them aside. Gather together the scraps of dough, reform it into ball, flatten it, and roll it out as before. Cut out the remaining cakes and set aside.

Note: I would recommend cooking one cake first as a test run, adjusting the heat of the griddle accordingly to avoid under or over cooking the remaining cakes.

Heat the griddle or skillet over medium low heat. When hot wipe the surface with a little butter and transfer some cakes to the griddle, arranging them so they are not touching one another. Cook for about 2 to 2 ½ minutes and the cakes have risen slightly. Lift up a cake to see if it is a nice golden brown. If so turn the cakes over and cook for another 2 to 2 ½ minutes. Feel the sides of the cakes which should feel slightly soft. If they need a little more cooking time just flip cakes over and cook another minute, but do not over cook!

Transfer the finished cakes to a cooling rack and dust with sugar if you like.

Serving:

Serve warm just as they are or with preserves and clotted cream (or Greek yogurt)

Store leftovers in a sealed plastic bag in the refrigerator. To reheat, just pop them in the toaster!

Baked Potato Salad

Baked Potato Salad

 

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.

Serving:

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.

Miso Soup with Shiitake Mushrooms

Aka-Miso (red miso) Soup with Shiitake Mushrooms

 

Now that fall has arrived and temperatures have waned soups are very much on my mind. One of the most satisfying soups I can think of is Japanese miso soup. It is simple to prepare and the warming pleasures of miso soup for breakfast, lunch, or dinner are well worth so little effort.

As I started thinking about this post a favorite Japanese film came immediately to mind; Tampopo. It is a sweet and very very funny comedy about Tampopo’s quest to make the best noodle soups for her noodle shop in her village. It says everything about achieving perfection in all things Japanese, including in the kitchen, and well worth a watch for some very lively and entertaining inspiration.

Ichiban Dashi, a clear light amber colored broth, is the foundation for many Japanese dishes like soups (including miso soups), simmered dishes, sauces, marinades, and salad dressings. Its essence is in its simplicity, using only three ingredients. Water, kombu seaweed (kelp), and Katsuo bushi (shaved dried bonita flakes). The resulting clear light broth has a subdued mellow smoky flavor with an underlying sweetness and a hint of the salty sea that belies its rich nutritional content.

Kombu is cultivated in the icy mineral rich waters of Hokkaido, Japan’s northern most prefecture. After harvesting the kombu is air and sun dried into a hard leathery textured bark like strips. Kombu contains numerous nutrients including natural glutamic acid which contributes an umami (pleasant savory) taste to the dashi broth. More about umami taste in my next post.

Katsuo/bonito is a type of Japanese tuna. The fish is boiled, the bones removed, and the flesh smeared with a fermented fish paste. The fish is then set aside to marinate and then sun dried. Once completely dry the fish is smoked until it is very dry and hard. The bonita is then thinly shaved into flakes called katsuo bushi that look very much like planed wood shavings.

Dashi preparation involves slowly simmering strips of dried kombu in water to extract the flavor and nutrients from the kombu into the broth. Just before the water comes to a boil the kombu is promptly removed from the pot to avoid any bitterness to the finished broth. Katsuo bushi/shaved dried bonito flakes are then added to the pot. Once the water returns to a boil the pan is promptly removed from the heat and set aside until the shaved bonita flakes sink to the bottom of the pot. The broth is then strained and set aside. This preparation’s success is all about timing!

This may appear to be a little complicated, but really the whole process takes no more than fifteen minutes from start to finish. There are packaged instant dashi powder sachets available, but the results using the traditional method of making dashi is far superior and more nutritious in every way.

To make Miso-shiru soup, miso is stirred into a small quantity of dashi until dissolved and then whisked into the hot dashi broth and poured into a soup bowl that may include some cubed tofu, a few sprigs of chives, and a dash of sancho pepper. That’s all there is to it!

The ingredients, as unfamiliar as they may sound, should be readily available at larger supermarkets, Asian markets, health food stores, or online as a last resort.

 

Ichibon Dashi

Ichibon Dashi

 

Ichiban Dashi (first dashi) makes 2 quarts

kombu

Kombu

  • 1.9 liters/2 quarts cold spring water
  • 1 oz/25g dried kombu strips
  • 1 oz/25g dried bonito flakes

Fill a medium size soup pot with cold spring water.

You will notice some white powder on the kombu which contains nutrients and will add flavor to the broth, so do not rinse it before placing the kombu into the pot of water.

Put the kombu into the pot of water and place on the stove over medium heat. Bring the water to a slow simmer without boiling for about 10 minutes. The kombu will soften, unfurl, and turn a deep green as the water nears the boiling point. As mentioned it is important that the kombu is removed from the pot before the water comes to a boil to avoid any bitterness in the broth. Using tongs remove the kombu and set aside to make a Niban Dashi (second dashi) with a more assertive flavored broth later.

Katsuobushi; Dried Bonito Flakes

Katsuobushi; Dried Bonito Flakes

Bring the broth back to a full boil and then add a little cold water to bring the temperature down a bit and add the bonito flakes without stirring. As soon as the water returns to a boil promptly remove the pot from the heat and set aside. Once the bonito flakes settle to the bottom of the pot, skim off any foam from the surface of the broth and discard.

Line a fine mesh strainer with cheesecloth and strain the both into a clean bowl and set aside to cool. Reserve the bonita flakes to make a Niban Dashi (second dashi) later.

The dashi can then be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for 4 days or frozen for later use.

Niban Dashi (second dashi): Reusing the kombu and bonita flakes from the first dashi will produce a deeper flavored dashi that is useful for simmered dishes, sauces, and dressings.

Follow the same procedure, adding the reserved kombu and bonita flakes from the first dashi, in a fresh pot of water. Bring to a near boil, remove the kombu, and then lower the heat and simmer until the broth is reduced by a third. Then add ½ oz/14g fresh dried bonita flakes and promptly remove from the heat. Let the flakes settle to the bottom of the pot, remove foam, strain, and refrigerate or freeze. 

Miso 

Miso is a Japanese fermented soybean and grain paste. All have a high protein content and rich in vitamins and minerals.

Shiro miso; aka white miso is pale light color with a mild and slightly sweet flavor.
Shinshu miso; yellow miso is a yellowish brown color with a bolder flavor and more salty.
Aka miso; aka red miso is dark red brown with an assertive flavor and the most salty miso.

 

Miso-shiru (miso soup) basic: serves 4

  • 4 cups Ichiban Dashi (first dashi)
  • 3-4 tblespoons Miso of choice
  • ½ block firm tofu cut into small cubes
  • ¼ cup thinly sliced scallions 
  • Optional: shiitake mushrooms, seaweeds, assorted Japanese herb stalks, sansho pepper as a seasoning.

Heat the dashi to a near boil.

Place the miso in a small bowl and ladle some of the hot dashi into the bowl and whisk the miso into the broth until completely dissolved. Then slowly pour the miso mixture into the hot dashi and stir until well combined.

If you are using mushrooms or seaweed stir them into the soup as well.

Heat the soup for an additional 1 or 2 minutes until piping hot without boiling.

Serving:

Place the cubed tofu and scallions into individual serving bowls and ladle the soup into the bowls.

Garnish with Japanese herbs if using and serve.  Sancho pepper, with a light lingering peppery citrus after taste, is a nice additional seasoning at the table. 

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