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.
Both Mexican and New Mexican inspired, this oven braised chicken recipe is really simple to make and delivers rustic succulent tender chicken with a crisped red chile skin as well as an assertive picante sauce to boot. Serve with frijoles (beans) ola, or frijoles refritos (see here), along with rice and you have a truly Mexican meal you will be revisiting again and a gain.
Oven Braised Red Chile Chicken serves 4
- 4 chicken thighs with legs attached
- 1 onion, peeled and finely diced
- 4 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
- 2 teaspoons cumin seeds, toasted and coarsely ground
- 2 tablespoons crushed fresh sage leaves
- 1/3 cup freshly squeezed lime juice
- 1 tablespoon honey
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 teaspoon sea salt + more to taste
- 2-3 tablespoons pure red chile powder (New Mexican if available)
- 3 bay leaves
- 1 ½ cups chicken stock or water
Rinse the chicken and pat dry with paper towels.
Select a deep clay or ceramic baking dish that will be large enough to hold the chicken along with the stock.
Combine the onions, garlic, cumin seeds, sage, lime juice, honey, and oil in the baking dish and stir until well combined. Stir in the salt and red chile powder and taste, adding more salt and chile to your liking.
Add the chicken to the baking dish and using you hands (you may want to use disposable gloves) turn the chicken in the marinade while massaging the ingredients into the flesh. Then press the chicken into the marinade until evenly covered. Cover the baking dish with cling film and refrigerate for several hours.
Preheat the oven to 375 f/190 c with the rack in the center of the oven.
Remove the marinated chicken from the fridge and bring to room temperature.
Toss the chicken once again in the marinade and then turn the chicken skin side up in the baking dish. Tuck the bay leaves between the chicken pieces and spoon some of the marinade including the onions etc over the chicken.
Pour the stock into the baking dish around the edges leaving the top skin of the chicken exposed and transfer the baking dish to the oven.
Roast for 1 hour and 15 minutes. This may seem like a long time but the chicken braising in the liquid produces a very tender flesh while the exposed skin will be very crisp and partially charred which adds a rustic flavor to the dish as a whole.
Transfer the chicken to a platter and tent with foil loosely.
Skim off the chicken fat that has risen to the top of the sauce and discard or save for another purpose.
Place the chicken on individual serving plates. Add the beans and rice around it and spoon the sauce generously over the chicken and serve.
My dear friend and consultant at large for all things about Chinese cooking, Steven Hu who lives in Shanghai, was back in Chiang Mai for a couple of weeks and we decided to have friends over for a farewell dinner together. Steven kindly offered to make his hot and numbing Sichuan Chicken wings to start off the evening along with drinks. The wings were such a big hit I thought Steven’s recipe had to be written up and shared. I realize everyone has their favorite chicken wing recipe, but these Sichuan wings are a must try for all you adventurous cooks.
Sichuan pepper ( hua jiao) is not a true pepper, but dried pepper husks from a native woody shrub harvested in the mountains of Hanyuan in western Sichuan. The aroma is heady and intoxicating as is the slow lingering numbing effect on the palate. There is no substitute so head to your local Asian market where you can pick up the Sichuan peppercorns as well as all the other ingredients for this recipe, all of which are handy to have on hand in your pantry for cooking other Sichuan and Chinese recipes.
Sichuan Chicken Wings: serves 4
- 16 chicken wings, trimmed, rinsed, and drained
- 1 tablespoon Sichuan peppercorns, lightly toasted
- 1 teaspoon cumin seeds, lightly toasted
- 5 tablespoons light soy sauce
- 2 tablespoons Shaoxing cooking wine (or dry sherry)
- 2 tablespoon Chinkiang black vinegar
- 1 ½ teaspoons red chile oil (see note)
- 1 tablespoon Sichuan pepper oil (see note)
- 1½ teaspoon finely minced garlic
- 1 teaspoon finely grated ginger
- 1/3 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper
- ¼ teaspoon fine chile flakes or to taste (optional)
- 1 star anise
- 2 teaspoons honey for drizzling
Lightly toast the Sichuan peppercorns and cumin seeds together in a small pan over low heat. Once aromatic remove from the heat and promptly transfer to a mortar and set aside to cool. When cool coarsely grind and set aside.
Select a bowl large enough to hold the chicken wings and add the ground Sichuan pepper and cumin seed mix, soy sauce, Shaoxing cooking wine, Chinkiang black vinegar, red chile oil, Sichuan pepper oil, garlic, ginger, white pepper, and chile flakes (if using). Whisk the ingredients together, stir in the star anise, and set aside.
Layer the chicken wings into the marinade and press them into the mixture until they are completely covered, stirring in a little water if needed. Cover the bowl with cling film and refrigerate for several hours.
Remove the marinated wings from the fridge and bring to room temperature.
Preheat the oven to 425f/200c with the rack set in the middle of the oven.
Line a baking tray with parchment or foil and set aside.
Place the wings, skin side down, in the tray so they are just touching for even cooking. Drizzle the wings with a little marinade and a scant drizzle of honey over all the wings. Place the tray in the oven and roast for about 12 minutes. Remove the tray from the oven and turn the wings skin side up. Drizzle with a little marinade and honey and return the tray to the oven for another 16 to 18 minutes, or until the skin is bubbling, browned, and crispy.
While the wings are roasting transfer the marinade to a small sauce pan and boil it for 3 minutes and set aside to cool.
Promptly remove the wings from the oven and cool for 5 minutes. Lightly drizzle the wings with marinade.
Transfer the wings to a serving bowl or platter and serve.
Red chile oil (hong you, which means red oil) is sometimes available in Asian markets, but if not you can easily make your own.
Place ¼ cup of coarsely ground dried red chile flakes in a small stainless bowl. Heat1 cup peanut or corn oil over medium heat until nearly smoking. Turn off the heat and let the oil cool for 10 minutes and then pour the oil over the ground chile, which will sizzle at first. Stir and set aside to cool. Once cool transfer the mixture to a jar and seal with the lid. Store in a dark place for a week or so to infuse the oil with the essence of the chile. Refrigerate for long term storage.
Sichuan pepper oil is prepared in the same way as the chile oil. Simply follow the same procedure as above.